2019 by the Books : Not Work

I read 63 books in 2019. 

29 for work

34 for not-work

Of the not-work books:

28 audiobooks. 6 in print. 

This list doesn’t include any of the theory or criticism I also read, because largely boring. 

Before you dig into this list though, if you’re interested, there’s a whole preamble to this two part project in the Part One post. You can scroll down to it, or click here. 

Books I Read Not For Work

The books I read that are not for work are either ones my husband buys me — he makes sure I always have a towering pile — or things that strike my fancy as I come across them in my various social media feeds, like the two Choi books and the Moshfegh.

I began listening to audiobooks after our son was born, because pregnancy and infant care shot my brain to shit, and listening to books helped me train it to be still and focus for extended periods again. Audiobooks are also why I can get through the volume of things I do along with all the other things that have to happen in any given day. 

These are the ones I read in print: 

36D69CEE-6D26-45CA-A52B-1E781C696A01_1_101_o30. Oyeyemi, Gingerbread (2019) – I have no idea what to think about this book and am hoping one of my grad students, Kate Harlin, writes about it in the intro to her dissertation, like I told her to, so she can in turn tell me what to think about this bewildering queer fairy tale. 

31. Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black (2018) — Stories set in the near future, many of which riff on the consumerist horrors of Black Friday. 

32. Serpell, The Old Drift (2019) – The best book I read this year, by a lot. Multi-generation and LONG AF. As in it begins in the early 1800s in West Africa and ends in the near future and took me the whole summer plus tax to read it. But it’s such a smart and ultimately brain busting narrative about Zambia primarily, and the ways technology shapes our lives. And mosquitoes. It is also about mosquitoes. 

33. James, Black Leopard Red Wolf (2019) — The first installment of the Dark Star Trilogy, wherein James demonstrates that along with everything else, he is also a genius at world making. Holy moly the world making in this novel! Because it is as vulgar and violent as everything else he writes, perhaps even more so, it is also absolutely surprising that at the core of this novel is a beautiful and devastating same-sex love story that moved me in ways nothing else in James has to date. 

34. Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) — I’m not sure I like poetic novels, but as poetic novels go, this one about the colliding devastations of a gay Vietnamese man, his mother and grandmother, amidst the violence of war and turmoil of the opioid crisis, is as beautifully written as they come. The metaphor of migrating monarch butterflies is also quite beautiful. 

35. Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (2019) — Evaristo shares this year’s Man Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood and I enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other so much I can forgive that it mixes up Jamaica and St Lucia. I marked the pages. Don’t @ me. Its structure recalls James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings where a multivocal cast of 12 narrators/characters tell stories about themselves that will culminate in a single event shared by everyone. I’m not thrilled about how neatly it wraps up Penelope’s narrative, while leaving the others so frayed, like Amma, Dominique, and Shirley. It reflects a troubling unevenness around race/colorism, sexuality, and class that bugs me. But perhaps I’ll save my theories about that for a nerdier forum.

These are the ones I listened to on audiobook — All hail audiobooks!

AC058B7A-2C40-4F7F-9ED8-912723A9B245_1_101_o36. Senna, Caucasia (1998) — Coming of age story of two multiracial sisters, with a white mother and black father. 

37. Luiselli, The Lost Children Archive — This. Book. Another hitta and favorite this year and a Luiselli is now a McArthur genius fellow to boot. This book demonstrates what it might take to capture the experience of migrant children traveling alone, and what it means for us to consume these experiential narratives — whether it be through news stories or works of fiction. An assemblage of narrative, literary texts, sounds, and objects, Luiselli’s book is a deep and complex archive that purposefully disorients and is surprisingly moving. 

38. Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (2014) — It’s as it says and every man I know should read the title essay of this collection because 2019 was your last year of explaining my own shit to me. #thatisall

39. Nguyen, The Refugees (2017) — A haunting collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees who continue to live with the traumas of war and migration, some more successfully than others. 

40. Hartman, Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (2019) — This book is masterclass in methodology and praxis and is what you get when you take the best of black feminist theory and apply it as a method for an archival history of violently undervalued and marginalized black girls and women. The power of Hartman’s book for me is in how its history of its subjects, in turn of the century New York, is unflinching in its treatment of the violence of their realities, yet does not render them as victims; it is also as careful with making visible their agency without absolving the systems that oppressed them. This one is also another super favorite from this year that changed how I think and work.  

41. Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (2017) — Building on her work on feminist killjoys, Ahmed takes on in this collection of essays, among other things, some of the material costs of living a feminist life. This is also another masterclass in methodology, because it intentionally centers scholarships and work by women and women of color in particular. 

42. Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) — Could not get down with this satire — it is satire right? — of a wealthy blond who sleeps and drugs her way out of her sadness. I hated it. Barf. 

43. Woodson, Another Brooklyn (2016)— Retrospectively, an adult protagonist, August, tells the story of growing up in Brooklyn and the friendships she once but no longer shares with three other girls. 

0E272D80-84CD-4C7E-A2BA-150394880E18_1_101_o 44. Ross, Oreo (1974) — Just in case I was tempted to think Paul Beatty and Percy Everett came out of nowhere with this black satire business — (I wasn’t, but still), writer and one of my grad students, Donald Quist, told me about Fran Ross and Oreo and behold, one of the earliest contemporary works of black satire was written by a woman. 

45. Rushdie, Quichotte (2019) — I only read this because I have a thing for the Booker shortlist. If you’ve never read Rushdie, you might enjoy this book. If you’ve read Rushdie you might find its hyper contemporary-ness a bit like an old dude working entirely too hard to remain relevant. It’s a rewriting of Don Quixote, in the shape of a road trip narrative, that is also a book within a book, within a book, and is so utterly excessive and ridiculous it is actually funny in the moments when it isn’t pandering. Do I think it’s a good book? No. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Can a book be terrible and I still enjoy it? Heck yeah. I like reality tv and that shit is straight trash. 

46. Shelley, Frankenstein (1823) — Because Beloved. That’s all you need to know about that right now, because I’m still thinking the thoughts, and I’ll let you know when I’m done. 

47. Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936) — A story about three families in the South, before, during, and after the Civil South, that centers on this oddball named William Sutpen, who among other things, wrestles naked with his slaves. Faulkner is a trip and a half, y’all, and he doesn’t leave you with anything to make your way back. 

48. Faulkner, As I lay Dying (1930) — Narrated by 15 different characters and an inspiration for James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, this crazy ass book tells the story of a family returning the body of their mother to her hometown for burial and all the hyjinx that ensues along the way — like a broken leg that gets cast in concrete — , as well as all the before things that brought the family to this moment where they are hauling a rotting corpse (with vulture accompaniment) across the rural South. And the ending. Sweet baby Jesus on a cracker, the ending.

49. Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)  — Tells the story of the Compson family that explains why one of the sons, Quentin, is as obsessed as he is with the Sutpen family in Absalom, Absalom!. Quentin is one of the narrators from over in that other novel you see. Faulkner love di mix up bad bad. 

8733AEE9-7916-42DB-AE5C-0EB9224D1913_1_101_o50. Woodson, Red at the Bone (2019) — I don’t know why I’m always surprised when a contemporary novel set in New York become 9/11 narratives, but I read more of those than I usually do this year and was caught off guard every time. 

51. Choi, Trust Exercises (2019) —Because it beat Black Leopard Red Wolf for the National Book Award. Come for David and Sarah’s angsty teenaged romance and stay for when the story becomes Karen’s. 

52. Choi, My Education — A story about professors having sex with grad students. I’m concerned I think it ended vengefully rather than sentimentally. 

Books I Read to Mourn Toni Morrison 

Finally, starting the day she died, with the first novel I could borrow from the library on audiobook, Tar Baby, I kept a four month long wake for Toni Morrison. During this time I learned that I adore a retrospectively told novel. All of Toni Morrison’s novels work in this way, where it teases you early with terrible things that happened, and then unfold the whys and hows slowly. In the case of The Bluest Eye and Beloved, the why is never really satisfying or even a successful justification, the how is just horrifying, and what remains are the terrible things suffered by the vulnerable in her novels, especially children. I only just realized this year, even though I’ve been reading Morrison for years, how much bad shit happens to children in all her novels. Faulkner and Shelley are here this year too because they’ve been helping me think through some things in Morrison. 

Among the things I want to look into more, as I continue to think about Morrison’s work and how it influences contemporary writers of color, is how it portrays war and real estate. Morrison thought a lot about real estate and property ownership.

I’ve started listening to these novels again. This time, chronologically according to publication date. I’ve already finished The Bluest Eye again and have another three weeks before Sula arrives in my library audiobook app, because apparently, I’m not the only one keeping this vigil. 

21C1F605-0E50-48C6-AF4A-BFE65104D5CB_1_101_o53. Tar Baby (1981) — The present of this novel is almost Christmas in a vacation house in the Caribbean, where the house guests include a fashion model and somebody who wasn’t actually invited. He’s hiding in the closet. As with all of Morrison’s novels, what Tar Baby is really about is all the bad shit that went down in the past that brought all the players to this present in the first place. The bad stuff is really bad in this one, y’all. 

54. God Help the Child (2015) — Morrison’s eleventh novel and the only one that I think ends happily. And that’s all I will say about that.

55. The Bluest Eye (1970) — My. Favorite.  Morrison. Hands. Down. I could read this one over and over and over again into perpetuity. I actually listened to it a second time just before the year ended. Morrison’s first novel portrays an eleven year old girl named Pecola, who becomes a dumping ground for her family’s and community’s damaging internalizations about racial beauty and inferiority. 

56. Sula (1973) — Morrison’s second novel and a devastating story about conformity, womanhood, and female friendship. I’m going to use variations of this to describe all of Morrison’s novels. Can’t say I didn’t warn you. 

57. Love (2003) — A story about the women who loved and who were forced to love a hotel owner named Bill Cosey, who is deceased at the time of the story’s telling. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! pops up in a couple of Morrison’s novels and I think this is one of them. 

58. Home (2012) — A Korean War vet travels south to rescue his sister who is in the employ of a liberal but horrifyingly cruel doctor. I still don’t know what all he did to her, but the descriptions of her recovery at the hands of a community of women is of a piece with Morrison’s vision of healing and care across her fiction. 

59. Jazz (1992) — My first invited lecture at MU was on this novel. I’d never read it before and at the time was still working solely on the Caribbean, so the invitation, though welcomed and appreciated as a brand new assistant professor of color, was nonetheless a weird one that is telling about how unis think about the scholarly purviews of their faculty of color. But you aren’t here for the nostalgia are you? Jazz is a short novel that musically and with improvisation — per its title —  tells of the circumstances that led a married man to kill his young lover at a party in 1920s Harlem. 

60. A Mercy (2007) — I’ve heard this one called Morrison’s Absalom, Absalom! in its depiction of the women who are left behind in the wake of the death of the family patriarch and pioneer in early America. 

61. Beloved (1987) — I read and listened to this one simultaneously. I started the print copy first and never went beyond where I was in print when I listened. It took me so long to read it — three months — because I knew it was all leading up to the telling of why a runaway slave woman slashed her toddler’s throat. Bad shit happens to children in all of Morrison, y’all. All of it. 

62. Song of Solomon (1977) — I wanted to like this one, but I don’t know if I do. I might after another listen. It follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead, whose entry into the world coincided with the suicide of an insurance salesman. It’s a quest for origins of sorts that has Milkman traveling south from Michigan to find out about his father’s people. 

63. Paradise (1997)— Along with Song of Solomon this one is also not my favorite; my brows are still furrowed. It begins with a woman getting shot and killed by a group of men and even after reading how and why it happened, this is all I can think on that one for now. 

 

So there you have it. All 63. See you again next year. Maybe. 

2019 by the Books: Work

I’ll spare you the apologetic preamble about resurrecting the blog after two years, as well as the promises to do better about providing content more frequently going forward. We all know how this goes.

We’re here today because I’ve been making a long ass annotated list of all the books I read in 2019 and I needed to organize it, reflect on it a little bit, and then after I did all that work, I wanted to put it somewhere that wasn’t my documents file. 

So, here is Part One of two: the 29 books I read in 2019 for work. Why two parts? Because ain’t nobody got time, all in one go, to read an annotated list of 60 plus books some random person read last year. But anyway …

I read 63 books in 2019. 

29 for work

34 for not-work

Of the not-work books:

28 audiobooks. 6 in print. 

This list doesn’t include any of the theory or criticism I also read, because largely boring. 

My absolute favorites that I read for the first time this year are in order of appearance below:

Laymon’s Long Division (2013)

Coval, A People’s History of Chicago (2017)

Sidibe, This is Just My Face, Try Not To Stare (2017)

Sylvester, Everyone Knows You go Home (2018)

Gambito, Loves You: Poems (2019)

Serpell, The Old Drift (2019)

Luiselli, The Lost Child Archive (2019)

Hartman, Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (2019)

You can also follow @sherireadsbooks on Instagram, where I’ll eventually post a less essay-like rundown of all 63 and what I will read going forward. 

Highlights from 2019 reading includes:
  • listening to all of Toni Morrison’s novels, as read by her, and throwing in a little Faulkner and Mary Shelley too, because I’ve been thinking about intertextuality and gothic horror. 
  • Morrison reads all her novels in a tone just above a whisper. It is intimate, as though you’re being taken into a conspiratorial confidence and hearing her read her words have been among the highlights of my year. 
  • bad things happen to children in every single Toni Morrison novel.
  • thinking through African American satire in a way that lead me to Fran Ross and (surprisingly) Mark Twain. Who knew Huck Finn popped up I’m so many places? 
  • I’m in a phase of reading that is preoccupied with death. According to one of my grad students, I’ve been there for a couple years now, based on the books I’ve been assigning for classes. Students in the freshman lecture also asked why I picked such morbid bummers. 
  • Reflecting on all the things I’ve read over the last year has helped to shape the directions my work will take in the next year.
 Books I Read for Work

I taught four courses this year: a grad seminar called “New Black Iconoclasm”; an upper division undergrad class called “Glow Up Literature”; an honors tutorial organized around the authors who would attend a local book festival; and a freshman lecture called “Coming to America”. 

New Black Iconoclasm

I’ve taught New Black Iconoclasm now three times, to help me think through what I hope will be my second, maybe third academic book. Both book and course are inspired by Marlon James first novel, John Crow’s Devil, and examine authors and texts that are puzzling in their sometimes-irreverent rejection of the beliefs, institutions, and practices normalized in black discourses. This time around, I think I had a much better sense of what I was doing. I divided the course into four areas: post-blackness, humor and satire, experimental fiction, and queer post-backness. None of these categories are mutually exclusive but serve as a way to bracket different theoretical and critical approaches that I think are relevant to how this new book — if I ever get it written — will think about iconoclasm in contemporary black fiction

Post-blackness

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1. Jones, The Known World (2003) – The saga of a black slave owners. I fux with long books, but whew, this one is long, and have one bag a people in it, and it’s cool in how it thinks about the imbrication of race, capitalism, and slavery, but did I say this was a long-ass book? 

2. James, The Book of Night Women (2008) – A neoslave narrative that’s a mash up of Mary Prince, Jane Eyre, and Wide Sargasso Sea, and where James writes all the violence, sex, and sexual violence in ways that would make its predecessors gasp and clutch their pearls. I’ve read this novel so many times and I am still shocked and even scandalized by everything Isobel. 

Humor and Satire 

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3. Laymon, Long Division (2013) – A hilarious satire that will make you feel ashamed for laughing, about a time traveling preteen boy name Citoyen, (City for short) and is one of my favorite books of all time right now. Come for City’s wit. Stay for the allusions to Huck Finn.

4. Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle (1996) – An absurdist narrative that presents an alarming anti-racism strategy. Someday I’ll be able to write intelligently about how in Long Division, the scene where City watches his grandma take a bath after she and his uncle beat up a guy she has locked in the shed out back, is an affective allusion to the scene where Psycho Loco showers at Gunnar’s house after killing a bunch a people in The White Boy Shuffle, which furthermore, is somehow connected to the affective registers of sentimentality that Mark Twain was also working with in the scenes where Tom and Huck play at helping Jim escape from the shed, while ultimately terrorizing him. Today, clearly, is not that day though. 

5. Everett, Erasure (2001) – This book was the first Christmas presents Andy ever gave me. It was ten years ago and it was a way to show me how the mind-boggling things going down in James’ novels were also going down in other ones as well. In Erasure, a disaffected black male professor holds the esoteric and lathers on the popular to write a book that makes beaucoup money. This absurdist narrative includes satirical versions of Sapphire and Oprah and a novel within a novel titled My Pafology and Fuck. 

6. Johnson, Pym (2011) – A satirical fantasy inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In Pym, another disaffected black male professor (there’s a pattern, more soon) experiences a collection of apocalypses, each one more absurd than the one before. After this third rereading, I’ve decided it’s an allegory for diversity work in universities. All of it. Even the parts that come after Chris gets fired from his job as a professor.

7. Beatty’s, The Sellout (2015) – This first ever American winner of the Man Booker Prize is framed as the backstory that leads up to the contemporary Supreme Court case “Me v. the United States of America,” on the charge of slave ownership, me is a black man named Bon Bon and his slave is a guy who played Buckwheat’s younger brother on Little Rascals. Even after three readings, I still can’t quite wrap my mind around what all it is in aid of yet, but it’s mind bending and wickedly hilarious nonetheless.   

8. Senna, New People (2017) – Because women write satire too and this one, in the spirit of Fran Ross’s Oreo and haunted by Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre, skewers ideas about racial authenticity, by filtering them through themes of wealth, love, and belief. 

Experimental 

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9. Oyeyemi, The Icarus Girl (2005) – Oyeyemi was working on A-Levels when she wrote this novel that asks is eight year old Jessamy Harrison haunted by her dead twin? Does she have a personality disorder? Both? Other? Oyeyemi certainly does not tell.  

10. Oyeyemi, What is Not Yours Is Not Yours (2015) – I have yet to read any of Oyeyemi’s writing without feeling paradoxically enthralled yet utterly perplexed, and this short story collection is no different. 

11. Emezi, Freshwater (2018) – A startling and contentious book about the fluidity of gender and sexuality, told from the perspective of the spirit beings occupying the protagonist’s body. Though, now that I write that I want to think some more about what it might mean to call their brother/sister spirits protagonists too. 

Queer Post-blackness

BDB738F3-B985-4B87-B5AE-1C199774DCA712. Thompson-Spires, The Heads of Colored People (2018) — A haunting collection about race, gender, love, and culture, with stories that I still can’t shake. Like a wickedly funny one told entirely through letters between two black mothers fighting, with zero chill, about their daughters, that includes a satirical take on the class quirks of the Jack and Jill social club. 

13. Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (2017) — A collection of short stories, some of them horrors, wherein the ones that have stayed with me are the ones about the husband stitch, Benson and Stabler from SVU, and a boutique where the ghosts of women are sewn into the seams of dresses. 

14. Attah, The Hundred Wells of Salaga (2019)— A story about the Ashanti-Fante wars that center on a girl sold into slavery and her defiant mistress, who is a daughter of a chief. I’m inclined to agree with one of my grad students who described it as a western. Shoutout to Elrom Nutakor for that gem. 

Glow Up Lit 

This was/is a weird reading phase that was stalled a little bit by Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I’m going to think about this while I teach Becoming this semester alongside Mary Prince, Saidiyah Hartman, Angela Davis and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. This is the anti-Glow Up Lit course, I think, largely because I want to be careful in parsing how things that entertain me, that also give financial independence to women who otherwise wouldn’t have it — independence that extends to their families, also contribute to a dangerous “you can do it too if you work hard enough ethos.” The fact is, this isn’t true, and success stories from the exceptional few who get through, work as a safety valve that also to keep the rest of us on the hamster wheel.

In any event, before reading Obama’s memoir, which I love ambivalently, I was super into how black women make it big through successful social media and cable tv self-marketing. I still am to some degree, but more critically these days than celebratory. From Tiffany “New York” Pollard’s beginnings on VH1 to Issa Rae parlaying YouTube success into 4 seasons of an HBO series, I’ve been mulling — largely from my couch — the convergence of social media and reality tv success and how it creates spaces for the entrepreneurial success of black women for years . Of course, as with everything else, access to the channels of success isn’t entirely democratic. Nonetheless, there is an astonishing proliferation of book deals for these women to write about how they found success in markets that have long discriminated against them. They’re triumphant and inspiring, yet ultimately a dangerous placebo.

Anyway, enough of the song and dance about how this is all just complicity with a discriminatory system; you’re probably still with me on here for the reads and not the soapbox.

My absolute favorite book from this self-described genre where women write about how they achieve success either professionally or self-developmentally isn’t one I read this year. If I’m honest, I think I even like it better than Becoming. It’s Retta’s So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know, because it is not self helpy, is completely funny, and so full of joy, it is exactly the pick me up you didn’t know you needed. 

But anyway, here are the ones I taught in 2019, not to gain the keys to building a successful media empire like Shondaland, but rather to consider black femaleness as a brand; to learn about how black women are writing about race, gender, and politics in the popular rather than literary sphere; and to think about what is conventional or not about this writing.

CD3EB187-C501-4C17-9288-F76B5A27D39D15. Sidibe, This is Just My Face, Try Not To Stare (2017) — Sidibe is funny and honest about her journey to success and the challenges that persist even after making it big because of her race and her dress size. This one is among my favorites. 

16. Ramsey, Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist (2018)  — I like Ramsey’s narrative about moving from clueless viral stardom to informed activism on social media. Especially useful is the glossary of terms associated with social justice discourses at the back of the book. 

17. Rae, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl  (2015)— She’s a pioneer of YouTube to mainstream crossover stardom, but I’m still too mad at Issa Rae for the glam bomb of Insecure’s 3rd season that felt less like the shows early grittiness and more like HBO’s sexpot glossiness. This book is ok. Her tv is better. I am also going to watch Season 4 of Insecure, because FOMO is real and how can I possibly be out here in these streets blabbing like I know shit, without doing this kind of home work? 

18. Rhimes, The Year of Yes (2015) — I didn’t expect to identify with Shonda as much as I did, but I low key love this book and how it thinks about the intersections of success, beauty, race, gender, marriage, and motherhood. But much like Obama, Rhimes’ antiracism is too invested in the system to be revolutionary. 

19. Robinson, You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain (2016) — I want to like Phoebe and her work, but I may just not be the audience for her stuff, and maybe my thoughts on this book say more about me than it does about the book. Her narrative voice and the oral quality of this book, while true to its writer’s persona, is among its most annoying aspects. From the belabored obsession with Bono and U2 to her insistence on neologisms every third word, pop culture digressions every fifth, and I. Just. Can’t. I dig excess in writing, done properly. Haterade aside,  the essay where she talks about what it means to be the only person of color in an art school (Pratt Institute) senior workshop is gold, I think largely because the persona is dialed back a lot.

Honors Tutorial 

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20. Bauer, American Prison: A Reporter’s Underground Journey Into the Business of Punishment (2018) — Part history of America’s prison for profit system that begins with its slavery roots and part undercover expose, reporter Shane Bauer writes about his experience going undercover as a guard in a private prison. Come for the eye opening history, stay for the ways Bauer struggles against devolving into violence and cruelty. 

21. Coval, A People’s History of Chicago (2017) — Have I ever told you that I don’t really like poetry? It’s not poetry’s fault. It’s me. I’m a bit too thick for it. I don’t understand it. Plus, I’m *still* traumatized from an instructor’s public derision at a not so spot on reading of Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in undergrad. So traumatized that while I remember all my UWI tutors, for the life of me cannot remember who this person was beyond his public ridiculing of me for incorrect homework. I haven’t always been this erudite, you know. It’s been a journey. But this collection! As the title suggests it’s a history of Chicago in poems and it is one of my favorite collections. I only have like five of those when it comes to poetry. The other collections that I like are by Tanya Shirley, Kei Miller, Lorna Goodison, and Sara Gambito. Notice how I didn’t actually talk about Coval’s poems there? I cant with poems.  

22. Imarisha, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015) — If you like sci-fi, this is an eclectic collection of stories that work in multiple ways at thinking through just and equitable survival and futurity. If you don’t like sci-fi read it anyway, because this is a cool book. Among my favorites are the ones with the scary wave that kills people, the one with Sun Ra, and all the ones with badass women warriors. 

23. Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) — Sure, a book about a dead boy isn’t the best choice of first book to start reading after giving birth, but despite the misguided choice, I like this polyvocal story that takes place over the course of one night, in a graveyard, among ghosts. I’ve taught it a couple times and think the audiobook version is among the best of this genre. With a cast of so many characters voiced by the likes of Nick Offerman — who kills at reading Mark Twain’s books btw —, Carrie Brownstein, Keegan-Michael Key, Lena Dunham and Don Cheedle, the audiobook for Lincoln in the Bardo is a theatrical feat of sorts.

I also moderated a session at the Unbound Book Festival and had the absolute pleasure of talking with the authors of these three books on stage in front of a whole-ass audience: 

24. Sylvester, Everyone Knows You go Home (2018) — This one is another of my absolute favorites from this year. It begins on the Day of the Dead, also the main characters’ wedding day, when the bride’s dead father appears in the newlyweds’ car between the ceremony and reception. Unlike other narratives about border crossing journeys, this one lingers longer and beautifully on the quotidian and the mundane in the lives of its characters — a mother playing with her children for example — than it does on the horrors endured during border crossings and immigration precarity. It made me rethink what I wanted to see in this kind of narrative and why. It helped me be even more deliberate about the books on these subjects that I assign to students. 

6632F239-BCE4-4390-B78E-4303C8E517C025. Gambito, Loves You: Poems (2019) — Another all time favorite collection of poems. It’s made up of poems as recipes and recipes as poems and my favorites include one about not eating Filipino cookies and an incredibly detailed recipe for French macarons at the end. I continue to think about how Gambito juxtaposes traditional Filipino recipes alongside critiques of imperialism, in order to suggest a new ethics of informed consumption that neither marginalizes nor fetishizes. I’m also totally going to make macarons from that recipe.

26. Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016) — Among the things that struck me about Orduña’s account of his own journey to naturalized American citizenship was the chapter on the uses of biometric data and its wandering quality that reminded me of Teju Cole’s Open City. When I asked about this — brownie points to me — Orduña said he was thinking about Cole and Sebald (who inspired Cole) and I was the first person to notice how he models his own movement in the book through the figure of the flaneur.

Freshman Lecture: Coming to America

Because immigration narratives are now so familiar that they are conventional — immigrant arrives, struggles, and then assimilates into happiness — in this course, I wanted to work with texts that thought counterintuitively about immigration, and this conventionality. It was tough going. You should have seen my students’ gymnastic efforts to make a happy ending out of Brother, I’m Dying 

27. Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (2007) — This one is one of the few books that I teach over and over again and it’s about how Danticat’s elderly uncle ended up dead in ICE custody after fleeing Haiti, and requesting asylum. It is a devastating narrative that makes me weep every single time I read it, but it’s a really good way to teach students about the longstanding relationship between Haiti and the US. 

28. Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015) — A super short book introduced to me by one of my colleagues, in which the myth of Mictlan stows away in a narrative of a young woman crossing the border from Mexico into the US. But also, Mictlan, Mexico and the US are never mentioned in this novel. 

29. Hamid, Exit West (2017),  — A pair of almost lovers escape their war-torn country through magical doors. The author thinks he’s written a hopeful vision of our time’s refugee crisis. He’s wrong. As someone who grew up in the poorest parish of a postcolonial Caribbean country, I like indoor plumbing and electricity far too much to be about Hamid’s vision of a hopeful life. 

Next up, click here for the books I read for fun. 

Nope. I am not here for your shock, surprise or denials of who you/we are.

The neo-nazi white supremacist horror that unfolded in Charlottesville over the weekend is just the bitter fruit of a strong yet old-ass tree that will not die so long as we keep behaving like we haven’t been scarfing down said fruit to get where we want to be in life. Neo-nazis marching openly as white supremacists in 2017 is not shocking. The smoldering racism and bigotry fanned by Tea Party and birther politicians, of voters who turned up in droves at Trump rallies and polling stations, of a justice system that refuses to convict police officers of extrajudical executions of black people, is the same racism and bigotry that decided to show up without their white hoods on a college campus, parading bare-faced and with pride through a Southern town. Some of us knew this could happen, because we recognized the escalation through the Obama years in the shooting deaths of unarmed black people by the police, and by shooter terrorists radicalized at home. At least those of us who know and are subjected to this country’s white supremacist history knew this could/would happen.

For those who claim they never saw this coming (and even if you did) you do us no favors when you say or do these three things:

1. Saying “this is *not* who we are.”

Um, the hell it’s not. When did the history of wealth accumulation that built this country, via the taking of land and the exploitation of black and brown labor on US soil and beyond, stop being a thing? How do you think America became a global superpower? Do your children know what made America great in the first place and what it means to want it to be great in that way *again*? There is no institution in this country that is not undergirded by white supremacist logics that privilege white citizens and their communities. White supremacy was not abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation, the dismantling of Jim Crow, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, or any of the other candidates. Americans just found new and more covert ways to enforce white supremacy, like increasingly creative restrictive covenants, differential sentencing laws for drug charges, and the private prison system. The enduring fact of black and white neighborhoods—raised, as many observers noted, to a fine art by the multiple separate municipalities in St Louis County—are among today’s glaring examples of the far reaches of slavery’s separatist white supremacist legacies and how property ownership and other seemingly benign structures are rigged to enforce them.

When the first line you draw is “this is not who we are,” you are beginning from a point of dangerously ignorant negation. Try starting from acknowledgment: “we have been this way for too long.” Acknowledge the systemic roots of white supremacy in who we are as a nation and call out its contemporary manifestations. Understand how they continue to work long after legal slavery and segregation have ceased to exist. Think seriously about how they are and have been at work in creating who we are today. Work to dismantle them.

2. Saying “we must listen to what they [the white supremacists] have to say.”

Yeah, no. We musn’t. Stop that. The problem with hearing hate out, however well meaning in intention, is that it creates dangerous false equivalences that obstruct the work of meaningful equity. It’s why there are dumbasses on my screens gawping over how both sides can’t seem to convey their competing views less disruptively, as if one side doesn’t have slavery and genocide on its historical track record. Only one side has terrorized non-white people with flaming torches and gas-chambers. Only one side is seeking to strip civil rights from everyone who isn’t a heterosexual white male. Only one side has mowed down pedestrians on a crowded street, murdering an American citizen in broad daylight. Only one side has acolytes who do things like walk into a black church and murder Americans at prayer and Bible study. You skew the terms of dialogue in hate’s favor when you treat it as though it is a morally tenable position worthy of equal consideration. You devalue the side fighting for equality. You are not helping the cause of justice, you are validating murderous and destructive hate. Cut it out right now.

3. Sharing symbolic memes.

What am I supposed to get from the sharing of memes depicting the ripping up of a Nazi flag? That shit is as small as the safety pin. Sorry, not sorry. We are so far beyond symbolic gestures that seeing such weak shows as expressions of solidarity just makes me mad. There were young white men brandishing torches on a university campus in the name of white supremacy in 2017. From where my black female immigrant ass is sitting, in Misssouri, the only state to have a travel warning from the NAACP, this is terrifying. All the Nazi flags in the world ripped in two does nothing to assuage that fear. Give a hard pass to the symbolic gestures in memes and on our clothes. Instead, go have an honest conversation with the children and young people in your family about white supremacy and how we are still in a place where, despite decades old legislation, despite a history of events like slavery and the Holocaust, white supremacists can march openly night and day, striking terror, spewing hate, and committing violence, while the police stand by for far too long and watch. Everyone, regardless of race, needs to be talking with their children about why there is such a thing as “the talk,” about why hearing it is crucial for some children and not for others.

Don’t know how to have such a heavy conversation? Click on the links to a variety of event-based syllabi that are being circulated. Here’s one specifically about Charlottesville’s history of white supremacy. Read the things listed and once you’ve digested them, go talk honestly to the children. Already talked to the children? Go talk to those in charge of the children’s school district. Ask them how these events will be treated in the classroom. Ask about the resources being allocated to help teachers instruct students frankly and factually about these events. And while you’re at it, go talk to your church’s minister and leadership council. Ask for more teaching that helps your faith community understand the relationship between the Good News of Christ and social justice. Demand the denunciation of what happened in Charlottesville, from the pulpit, as un-Christian. Jesus himself flipped tables and called his friends the devil for less.

Think children are too young to be exposed to things this heavy? Then you are well on your way to being complicit with the system that socialized the young men in their twenties and thirties who showed up on UVA’s campus with torches, upset that theirs are no longer the only voices that matter. Let’s avoid creating another generation of people who is either too enthusiastic about the public resurgence of white supremacy or too anxious to deny that this is who we really are. Can we do that?

Nope. I didn’t think it would take me so long to finally write this.

But there you have it. I took a vacation from processing the serious stuff too intently and am finally ready to take you back to how I felt, after posting an article, on one of those abysmal post-election days, that was critical of the safety pin business. It was the Ijeoma Oluo essay that described among other things how some folks were trying to get her fired because she criticized safety pin activism on Twitter.

No. This post is not a rehash of the whole to-wear-or-not-to-wear foolishness, but if you really must know what you’re committing to in the first two paragraphs, this is a reflection on why, since the election, I’ve prioritized humor and silenced overt political engagement in my facebooking. The cute baby and pet videos and funny status updates didn’t begin to proliferate because I’m pregnant and have gone soft, but because of the response to my safety pin post. I’ve curtailed political engagement on Facebook because of my desire to cultivate a different, uncontentious, indeed safer audience. You see, while I was fine with the comments from would-be pin wearers that explained their desire to wear the pin, their developing thinking about the actual implications of making that symbolic gesture for their own personal safety as well as the safety of those they hoped to assure with the symbol — that is while also acknowledging the many limitations of the small (literally and figuratively) symbolic gesture — I was not fine with being directed to someone else’s feed, where I was told I would find a ton of people who thought this was a “good idea.” Well shit. I know people think it’s a good idea. It’s why I reposted Oluo’s essay in the first place.

If I was a less curious person, I would have trusted my gut. My gut told me I already knew what was over on that thread and that its very substance was the crux of the critical essay I posted. But I’m a curious person, so I clicked on over to a thread replete with comments extolling the virtues of this newest iteration of symbolic allyship—most importantly, the positive affect it offered everyone at a time when we all so desperately needed some feel-goods. My rant about why I am suspicious of political action based on feel-goodness is for another time. If you’re impatient ask my husband who knows all too well that I have one. For now, and in the moment of reading what was supposed to be an instructive thread, I was being told that wearing the pin during this tough time made wearers feel better. For that reason criticism of the safety pin allyship was wrong, and I should take the words of a feed full of comments made by white folks as evidence of such. Well fuck. Here I was thinking you wanted to wear the thing for the blacks and browns like me, but when I and so many others tell you we are not here for it — shit we can’t even see it — you criticize us for messing with your feel goods.

For me, the experience was like, whoa, did this textbook whitesplaining really go down on my own page? Am I being asked to STFU with the criticism and go looking elsewhere for a more legitimate commentary of a social action that claims to help me and other minorities feel safer in increasingly hostile times — one ultimately to be taken as more valuable than my own? Is it really happening that my concerns about allyship, as an immigrant woman of color, are essentially being eclipsed, in a social media space that I curate, by the voices of those who wanted to wear the pin because it helped them “feel better,” all the while purporting that it was also for people like me? No, you STFU.

But really, it was I who shut up. I took a week off Facebook after the comment prompted demographic analysis of my facebooking. And even though I have returned, it’s been a return without the overt political engagement that once was a characteristic of my page. More cute pet and baby videos. Fewer things that attract whitesplaining. Because, you know church, beyond a persistent pregnancy related nausea, I’ve been sick to my stomach and a hair’s breadth away from tears every day that the good Lord has given, since that moment just after 11 on election night, when we all knew Pennsylvania would go red. The last thing I needed was to be told how I should feel about a symbolic gesture by allies who could/would/did not recognize how their own post-election malaise was generating silence and exclusion. Go back to any one of those threads about the safety pin, or the Woman’s March on Washington, or any of the objects/events post-election activism coalesced around, and pay attention to the demographics of those threads. Who are the majority defenders? Who are the detractors? Who is missing?

You see, church, the thing about the safety pin conversation is that it prompted me to analyze my social mediascape as I do literary texts, and what I learned beat me back into troubled quiet reflection. Not all silence is bad. Sometimes, especially after a trauma — which for many of us this election continues to be — being still and quietly apprehending the entirety of a complicated situation can be a good thing. The more I examined the thread I was directed to, indeed my own threads, and many others since, the more I realized I Facebook predominantly with white people. Of course I also have a ton of non-white Facebook friends, but my usual MO of political emgagments means I’m more often than not communicating with an audience that is majority constituted by academics — white academics to me more precise, with a few life-giving exceptions. Much like the predominantly white university where I work, and consequently the circles that I socialize in in real life, my Facebook is a very white place where I am more often than not one of few brown faces. I have long acknowledged and reconciled myself to the work and community part, but Jesus, the Facebook part was a gut punch. I honestly did not realize how white my Facebook was. How shitty is it that the thing that brought that home for me was being directed to a more ‘acceptable’ — read white — way of understanding a symbol of social justice allyship? I needed to step back to make sure that bitter realization did not entrench anger and frustration too deeply in my heart.

Moreover, the post-election emotional processing that I was privy to was predominantly by white folks who have rarely been disappointed by systems of power in the way that they were after November 8. As the Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle sketch from SNL shows, such disappointment is not as surprising for some Americans.

 

Sure many of us are similarly sickened, disappointed, and upset by the election’s outcome. But the coping mechanisms of the marginalized are far more muscular from frequent exercise. I understand the affective need behind the grab for the safety pin as similar to the grab for some Israel and New Breed. Watch the recently aired episode of Blackish, where Anthony Anderson talks about the resilience of African Americans in the face of a history punctuated by hardship, discrimination, and disappointment.

Such experiences are attended by real emotions that should not be minimized, and it’s knowing this that makes me unwilling to deny anyone who faces the disappointment of a system that has failed them the need for that which soothes the heart and spirit. What I have a problem with is when that which soothes is mistaken for productive politics that can effect material transformation, and is consequently held up as a fetish to silence necessary criticism. I’m over here trying to talk about a comprehensive treatment regimen for a metastasizing disease and you over there agitating for tiger balm.

This morning was also the first time since safety-pin-gate that I read a think piece about the election. It made me want to start thinking and writing again about the hard things that tie my stomach in knots and make me want to cry. Maybe I think our baby is now strong enough to not be too affected by my emotional tempests or that s/he needs to start learning about these things early – in utero even – because it’s hard out here. I realized that while my silence has been a necessary respite, it has also produced a bit of intellectual sedentariness that I need to remedy sooner rather than later, for fear of falling out of practice once I have a small person demanding everything I have. Thank goodness for my partner who, in this interim and always, listens to my tearful rants and patiently waits for the time when he wont be the only one subjected to them.

Even now I wonder about the value of posting this. But maybe it’s that people are processing, and while processing is fine, we need to be more open with each other about the differences in how some of us do it, so that *all* our wounds can begin to heal as cleanly as possible.

Sheri-Marie Harrison on Lorna Goodison’s “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)”

Mizzou Favorite Poems Project

harrison photo Professor Sheri-Marie Harrison

My name is Sheri-Marie Harrison, I teach in the English Department, and I’ve been at MU since 2008. I’m a prose fiction scholar who admires many poems, but has genuine fondness for only Lorna Goodison’s poems. My favorite Goodison poem is “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)”, which I hadn’t actually read since I taught it in my first course here at MU. When I went to read it for the task at hand, I noticed the page was marked with a rare book collection request form that dates back to my undergraduate days at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Today, just under two decades since I worked on the poem for an assignment in Edward Baugh’s “Love Death and Poetry” course, its place continues to be marked with a relic from that time. Back then, I not only found…

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Nope. There is still no chill over here in Missouri.

So, presha an’ all dese tings tun WAY up over here since last fall. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, take a quick crash course by reading thisthis, and this for information about the student protest movements that successfully forced the resignation of the University of Missouri’s system president. See this for how Mizzou’s football team got involved as protest closers. And finally this for an idea of how the powers that be have responded to a member of The Establishment getting the heave ho because of black students and their campus-wide allies, who clearly don’t know their place in this world.  Are you caught up? Good. Welcome back. Now that you have a bit of context,  and for those who may have missed the event, I wrote and read the following for a teach-in this past week that attempted to counter the negative and racist narrative of the events at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus since last semester.


As an English professor I study how events or phenomena in the real world are translated into representations, and what these representations and our reactions to them reveal or conceal about the lived realities of our past, present, and future. Since moving to Missouri in 2008 I’ve had lots of opportunities to apply this habit of mind to things other than novels, and to consider how we process and represent events involving race and community in our everyday lives.

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Holy Family Catholic Church, Freeburg, MO.

Let’s start with the mundane. A couple of years ago, I accompanied a friend to Freeburg, a little town about an hour and a half south of here. We went to a talk at the Holy Family Catholic church, given by a visiting priest who also happens to be black. That priest and I were the only two people of color in attendance. After the talk an elderly member of the church approached my friend and I and began, without invitation, as if compelled by the presence of two black bodies, to tell my friend (who is white) about the first black couple who moved to Freeburg, back in the 1960s. According to his story, they moved there from Chicago, but soon afterwards were forced to leave. He told my friend how the community encouraged the priest at the time to tell the couple they weren’t welcome, either in Freeburg as residents, or at Holy Family as parishioners, because of their race. The priest told them their unwanted presence might stir up racial unrest and even potential violence against them and their property. He concluded that in the community’s collective mind, it was better for them to leave. Thus, the community’s refusal to accommodate the couple’s diversity became the couple’s problem, and not the community’s problem. Rather than relinquish the segregated comforts of its own racism, Freeburg preferred to hold on to segregation for a little bit longer, ultimately laying the responsibility for their communal discrimination at the feet of the black couple.

I don’t know if the story he told is true; for my proposes here that doesn’t really matter. What I want to focus on instead is the fact that this elderly man decided to tell this particular story, on this occasion, and how he went about telling it. You see, as he spontaneously relayed this story to my friend, he neither looked at nor addressed me. I noticed this as he spoke to her and even tested to make sure I wasn’t imagining it by dropping a “really” or “is that so” and even “where’d they move to?” into the conversation. Though his eyes registered that he heard me, they did not move in my direction to register my presence, nor did he answer my questions. I didn’t protest this by confronting him; I didn’t see the point. He looked to be almost a hundred years old; I figured he wasn’t just set in his ways, he was pretty much calcified in them, like a fossil. Moreover, being from Jamaica, I had never had my presence erased in quite that way before and I was mildly fascinated by what was happening.

You might be surprised to learn that the man’s refusal to see me wasn’t the most discomfiting thing about this experience. It was, rather, that the person I was with did not notice I was being ignored. Or, to put it another way, she did not notice that the person she was talking to was refusing to see me. It only occurred to her when I explained it afterwards, and to her credit, once I asked what she noticed about his interaction with me, she began to register the exclusion. The thing is, while I expect racist discrimination and even erasure in some places, at the time, I was only just beginning to understand how this discrimination is simply invisible to some of us – even when it is happening in our presence.

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#squadgoals

From that mundane personal example of the failure or refusal to see, we can move to a more spectacular opportunity to think about how what we see and don’t see about race can tell us about ourselves and our community. Let’s talk about Beyoncé at the Super Bowl. When Beyoncé performed “Formation” in the Bay Area last month, flanked by dancers with afro-adorned heads bedecked with black berets, there was a collective clutching of pearls at what some saw as the outrageous and divisive audacity of this Black Panther imagery. How dare Beyoncé bring race onto the most hallowed of football extravaganzas? How dare she use that significant time and place – the fiftieth Super Bowl – to pay tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of establishment of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, in a city not that far away from the one where the game was being played. Never mind that Beyoncé and many of the football players inhabit raced bodies and as such, race is always already present. Never mind either that in order to make things hospitable for the big game and its fans, undesirable elements, like a large predominantly minority homeless population, needed to be removed from sight. By evoking the Black Panthers, Beyoncé also evoked, among other things, the absent presence of the city’s destitute displaced by game day gentrification. The backlash came primarily from those who did not want to be forced to see racial and class politics at the Super Bowl. One Fox News anchor said the overtly black performance alienated “little white girls” who are Beyoncé fans. A police union in Miami urged other police unions to boycott her concerts for what it perceived to be anti-police sentiment in the video for “Formation” and the game day performance.

Whatever your opinion is of the song or the performance, like a present day Trojan horse, in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé smuggled into one of America’s most unequivocally nationalist and always already racially loaded spectacles, the iconic, resistant, and subversive visuals of the Black Panther Party. As fashion magazines from the 1960s and 70s attest, the Black Panthers’ afros, black berets, leather jackets, and even

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Mizzou Football showing their solidarity with the Concerned Student 1950 movement

guns were as much about self defense and communal preservation as they were about a militant coolness, the celebratory, unapologetic, and now iconic racial pride of a violently oppressed and marginalized portion of American society. This is a portion of society that some of us continue to resist seeing or hearing, when we find ourselves in its presence. These days, that ignored and/or excluded presence is in no way as silent or polite as I was that night in Freeburg. Indeed, Beyoncé’s performance forced us to think about the relationship between sports, racial politics, and capital together, at the same time – much as our own football team did last November.

I can’t say Beyoncé’s display of blackness at the Super Bowl, a display that I see as related to our own student demonstrations, should not evoke emotions of anger or alienation or both. I think that is part of the point of the demonstrations.

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Among my proudest moments at MU #chills #staywoke

What I would like us to do is to pause to consider why particular visual spectacles of blackness – a black couple moving into an all white community, Black Panther-like dancers at the Super Bowl, or black students marching through a student union loudly demanding full equity on campus – are each represented through the lens of outrage that demands censorship, silencing, expulsion, and erasure, rather than an honest confrontation of what it is about us and our community that resists seeing, seeking instead to dismiss the fullness of what is being represented. What is it about how we perceive blackness that simultaneously registers as invisible and hyper-visible when it moves outside its quote-unquote proper place?

Nope. I didn’t expect Woody Allen’s Irrational Man would be triggering, but there you have it.

Holy shit you guys! It’s been a minute since I’ve had such a bad reaction to a movie. I don’t even like the word triggering and how it’s being trotted out to keep the ignorant blissfully so. But I struggled for reals with mounting anger through Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, while nonetheless still hoping I would find something redeeming about it. When we had the typical post-movie “Well what did you think?” conversation, all I could say was I hated it.

I needed some time to think about why, which I did, with much anger, gesticulations, and to my surprise one or two really big angry tears as the gentleman and I walked back to the car, drove to the grocery store, and made our way home. I knew it had something to do with the five people of color – only one of whom had a speaking roll that she played within the first 10 minutes of the film, after which she was never seen again – who I spent most of my time scanning the screen for and counting. But representational diversity was only just my gateway problem with the movie. I mean, come on, it’s a Woody Allen film. I knew what I was in for.

I’d like to acknowledge here too that my response to the film has everything to do with the fact that I am a relatively young, non-American woman of color, who is also a newly tenured English professor at a predominantly white Midwestern university. The first half of that self-description, in many ways, is why I can only ever smile politely and think, “how quaint” at the end of any Woody Allen film I’ve seen. Much of the culturally embedded specificity is as foreign to me as the films about where I’m from probably are to Woody Allen. In Irrational Man, though, every time I saw the one black dude that was at the table with an Asian woman and six or seven other white students, or the single black couple who were blurry background people in full rooms of in-focus white people, I felt the sometimes discomfiting familiarity of such rooms. My problem with this film, though, is not so much its lack of diversity, but the other thing that counting people of color made me notice: its portrayal of white American academics – not a single non-white one among them; I was looking – who all suffer from the same gross lack of awareness of the privilege that comes from their race, education, and citizenship. It was overdrawn, but also in some places familiar. I knew it well enough to recognize it immediately and it rubbed me the wrong way.

But let me back up for a second to give the context for why I was at this movie, even though I pretty much knew how it would go from the trailer and long ago decided I absolutely did not want to see it. If you are my friend on the social medias, you may have noticed that I have dramatically reduced my engagement with the racial politics du jour, particularly those surrounding police brutality. Sandra Bland’s death in particular was tough and angering. This is not only because I had to check somebody who characterized multiple deaths of African Americans in police custody as isolated incidents not reflective of any larger systemic issues, and not at all an indicator of a significantly flawed justice system. If I need to explain to you why the whole isolated incidents thing is rubbish, this blog is not for you. Click away from this post right now and come back when I have patience for your foolishness, and begin to pray for just that, because right now I am not the one. Jesus has been known to make a way, though.

With a few weeks before I needed to return to the classroom fresh and not angry about racial inequality, wearing a brown face in a predominantly white place, I took the self-care route that thankfully is also being advocated for those of us who live in the bodies that are typically targets for (sometimes fatally violent) marginalization and whose work focuses on countering this marginalization, one hard headed soul at a time. I stopped reading the posts, the articles, the memes, the all of it. I stopped engaging, because my recent drive back to Missouri from Miami, through southern states, terrified me. I stopped engaging because when my husband showed me the stupid video of the KKK member at a confederate rally wearing FUBU sneakers I cried, because I am terrified of those people who will say things like “blacks are taking over our country” but are unable to see that as racism, because too many people are too busy confusing hatred and patriotism. Stupid used to be an annoyance, but today, in this body and in this place, it is more terrifying than anything else that has ever frightened me in almost 36 years of life on this earth.

My self-care regimen, so I would stop crying when I felt hopeless in the face of the adamant ignorance of the #AllLivesMatter crowd, the capacity for deadly violence among the Dylan Roofs of the world, and the daily blurring of the line between the two, meant I decided to pass on seeing Straight Outta Compton too – that and the very troubling casting memo from a while back. There is no doubt that the police brutality and racism shown in that film would be angering and could trigger the tears that are always welling behind my eyes these days. Not only that, I can’t get behind the film’s treatment of women or Ice Cube’s dismissal of the film’s misogyny. I get the stupidity of youth part; everybody does dumb shit when they’re young. But I’m still waiting on the whole, that was so wrong back then and I see that now and I am happy I am a grown ass man who no longer denigrates women, because that shit – even when we perpetrate it as young, stupid youth – is just poor. See, Ice Cube? How hard is that? But anyway, I wasn’t going to see that movie because I needed to not subject myself to those two triggers – racism and misogyny – right before I hit classrooms on a university campus which, alongside many fine students, includes a bro culture like you wouldn’t believe, the excesses that sometimes accompany SEC football, and proud traditions like one fraternity’s Poverty Party.

So now we get to why I semi-unwittingly went to see a Woody Allen movie in the first place. I figured, what would possibly be upsetting in a lily white Woody Allen movie? As it turns out I found a whole lot to be upset about. When I saw Joaquin Phoenix in the opening scene I immediately recognized it, was a little wary of being there and, overall, sorry I don’t pay closer attention when my husband suggests we see a movie. The self-absorption of yet another middle-aged white man having an existential crisis that has not a damn thing to do with the price of rice didn’t appeal to me. But there I was nonetheless on the couch at the local art house theater settling in for a movie I had forgotten I didn’t want to see.

I’m a damn good sport though. I saw The Fantastic Four voluntarily and I feel neither here nor there about superhero stuff. So I settled in with my shandy and was prepared to watch and enjoy nonetheless. Quick plot rundown and there will be spoilers, so if Woody Allen is your shit and you plan to see it, then stop reading now and come back after for why it pissed me off. Ok, the rest of you, Abe Lucas, played by Phoenix, is a neurotic, self absorbed, romantically gothic, and attractive-to-everyone-because-he-is-troubled-yet-ridiculously-smart philosophy professor. He moves to Rhode Island to teach summer session at a fancy college with classrooms that only seat twelve. You know, the small rooms that are particularly suited for all those deep and complex and completely extemporized philosophical discussions of Kant, Kierkegaard, et alia that us professor types have all the time, with earnest undergraduate students who have all read and are engaged at a graduate level or above. Those people definitely show up for summer school.

Joaquin as Abe is in the throes of the same existential crisis that he’s been in for his last three roles – with the exception perhaps of Inherent Vice – but really, if you saw his red eyed bumbling mumbling in that one, you’ve already seen what he does in Irrational Man.

As over Joaquin Phoenix as I have been, I was more bored by Emma Stone, who plays Jill the student who is completely taken by Abe and all his gothic philosophical bullshit and spends much of the movie staring up at him doe eyed. Their romance is, as we say in Jamaica, dry like crackaz, and just utterly unmoving – to me at least – and I will accept that my annoyance with the overall boringness of both actors/characters probably does inform my assessment of their on screen chemistry.

The crux of the thing is how to resolve everything once Abe murders a corrupt judge to restore meaning to his life and Jill threatens to rat him out to the cops if he doesn’t turn himself in. To avoid having to give up his whole renewed sense of meaning and vitality and spend the rest of his life in prison if Jill goes to the cops, Abe decides to murder her too by throwing her down an elevator hatch that he’s tampered with. In an unexpected and really quite ridiculous physical skirmish, Abe slips on a flashlight that rolls out of Jill’s dropped purse. Ironically, this is a flashlight he won for her at a carnival. She picked it instead of a Teddy Bear. Yawn. Even when the movie tries to give Jill depth she only ever comes off as trying too gahtdamn hard to do lord knows what next to Joaquin’s crazy. But anyway, he slips on the fateful flashlight and falls to his own death down the shaft. I told you there would be spoilers; it’s your own fault if you continued to read despite my warning. But since you’re still here, you might as well stick around for the moment— ah comin’! –when this prefatory preamble/rant finally gets to why this film was unexpectedly triggering.

So beyond being bored by seeing Joaquin do all that exact shit already in comedies, dramas, and all of the things, and seeing Emma Stone moon-eye-with-barely-parted-lips her way through the entire film, what got me was the film’s utter unconsciousness about its dependence on white American privilege. Now, I have ambivalence about this. I am the lady who argues in most of her work that keeping art beholden to the political imperatives of its time and context is unproductively restraining, not the least because it makes us miss all kinds of important and interesting things about art. This is why despite being disturbed by the film’s tokenism with regard to diversity, I kept paying close attention rather than napping, because there had to be something redeeming about it.

It had to at the very least obliquely be aware of the privilege that it traffics in. But as it turns out, not so much. You see, Irrational Man clearly wants us to see Abe as an asshole, but it goes about making this point while remaining oblivious of the fact that he is surrounded by other people who are entirely unaware of their privilege, and for the most part useless in providing the kind of foil necessary to criticize Abe’s actions. For me the most egregious aspect of Abe’s assholery is the insipid narcissism that is at the core of his existential crisis. He spirals into depression, impotence, and alcoholism because despite his brilliant philosophical treatises and brave volunteerism in Darfur and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he has been unable to change the world enough. So he lost his reason to live, because his volunteerism and smart philosophy papers did not change the world. What the hell is wrong with wanting to change the world through smart academic writing and volunteering, lady?, is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask here. Not a gahtdamn thing is what I’d say, unless your whole reason for wanting to change the world is, like Abe’s, so you can feel better about yourself. Church, we don’t need any more people going into economically depressed places and disaster areas looking to feel better about themselves or searching for a reason to live. Those efforts become dangerous when they are focused on how self can be made better by helping others, rather than just helping others. See what I did there? Everyone, cut that shit out right now.

So let’s say Irrational Man feels the same way I do about the narcissism of volunteerism and the self-seriousness of academics and really wants us to see Abe for the sorry human being that he is. I would be more convinced by this argument if there weren’t other such characters all over the film. I mean, all I needed was one voiceover – maybe Jill’s when she wasn’t being boring – saying something like, “you know, this whole I’m-so-smart-but-can’t-save-the-world thing seems to be more about your brain and your efforts than it is about anyone else.” But nope, she was too busy being enchanted by said brain and efforts. Sure, she took the moral high ground and insisted that he leave town or she would turn him in, but that was only because murder is the horrific thing It is. It’s also important to note that she’s horrified by the murder but not so much by the character flaws or sense of privilege that lead up to it.  There’s a kind of willed blindness here that she shares with other characters.

Let’s take Rita, played by Parker Posey, who I hate to do this to, because she was the only watchable one in the whole thing if you ask me. Rita is a chemistry professor who was also having an affair with Abe. I say chemistry prof because it’s her key to the poisonous chemicals room that Abe lifts, so he can get the poison to kill the judge. Rita wants to divorce her husband and move to Spain to start a new life. Towards the end, after Jill threatens to turn him in, Abe entertains taking Rita with him when he leaves for Europe to escape further suspicion. Rita, even though she suspects Abe is the killer, is all like, I’d go with him anyway. Nuttn nuh wrong wid dat. Who cares if he killed a dude for reasons? Sexy romantic middle-aged European escape and wot not. Except of course for the perfect ease of the fantasy that through my eyes was conspicuously devoid of any concerns for border crossing. Ask one of those folks who are braving the treacherous waters off North Africa to make the nine mile trip to Europe – many of whom don’t actually make it – about the sheer simple pleasure of a new start in Europe. Ask one of the millions who made it to Europe from war torn countries but exist in refugee limbo because no country wants to grant them amnesty. I’m sorry, but even as a thoroughly documented immigrant, I did not get the fantasy, not least because people who should know better dreamt it up.

So here’s the crux of the problem, which has to do with how hard this movie has to work—and is willing to work—to gin up a sense of existential crisis in a world where too many people live that shit on the daily. Recently, I saw an outraged post on Urban Cusp about the human rights violation that is the taking of DNA swabs on arrest for FBI archiving and identification purposes; many of the ensuing comments also expressed the outrage with the word “unconstitutional” featuring prominently.

The criminalizing effect of such practices was the essence of the outrage. I have broken no laws, why are you taking my DNA? That particular outrage, expressed by an American woman, belies one of the many privileges of un-criminalized American citizenship. Today, immigrants, African Americans, and others are actively criminalized in subtle and not so subtle ways – like the arrest of activists at Black Lives Matter Protests. Since 9/11, I have been finger printed and photographed at the make shift precincts that are called Border Control in American airports every time I arrive from a different country. Every. Single. Time. More times than I can count. Before I got my green card, my biometrics were once again taken for the various criminal justice databases all over the country. What this has made clear to me is that as an immigrant, I do not have the luxury of a presumption of innocence. I understand the outrage at feeling like a criminal when one is subjected to practices associated with those who break the law. It’s how I have felt on every single entry into the US since 9/11. I have broken no law beyond being a woman of color who migrated to America. I bring all this up because I do not have the privilege of not being criminalized at American borders. This is why Abe and Rita’s European escape plan got under my skin. Really, they should know better.

I’d like to think that academics in a movie would have more awareness about the world and those beyond the mostly white halls of a college just outside of Providence, Rhode Island. Maybe that is too much to ask of Woody Allen. But at this current moment in history it seems in some ways easier to know these things than it has been, and by extension much harder to maintain the kind of fantasy of a world where people choose their own existential crises that Irrational Man wants us to buy. If you’re me at least.

Meanwhile, I guess I need to go see Straight Outta Compton after all. You know, to balance all the shitty chi.

Nope. On this score, America is not all that different from the Dominican Republic (or the Bahamas)

“‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,’” is what the young white man who sat for an hour among those gathered for bible study said to his victims as he opened gunfire on them and reloaded his weapon five different times. These are the names and ages of the men and women who were killed: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59. Never mind that six of the nine people are women, the fear of collective black violence against exclusionary white supremacist imaginings of “our country” that he invokes here has haunted white America, and terrorized people of African descent in particular, since Jesus was in short pants. Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin defined this fear in a 1964 interview. “There is no prospect of setting Negroes free, unless one is prepared to set the white people of American free,” he says. When asked from what do white Americans need to be set free, he answered, “free from their terrors, free from their ignorance, free from their prejudices, and free ultimately from the right to do wrong, knowing that it is wrong.” In qualifying this sense of the need for white people to be free, and characterizing it as a necessary part of the revolution hoped for by the Civil Rights movement — essentially saying this Civil Rights business is not just for black folk — Baldwin’s words show us that today’s white supremacist terrorist has not evolved far beyond that of yesteryear:

White southerners, I think are the most victimized, the saddest people of the Western world. They know it’s wrong – you can’t turn a dog on a child and not know that you are doing something wrong. You have to know it and nobody can deny it. And this is an extreme example of what I mean when I say that this revolution is not designed so much to change the Negro community as to change the American community, the American relationship to itself: Americans walking around with various uneasiness and terror, wondering what the negro is going to do next, especially since they invented him. You know what I mean?

I sure as hell do, James, but now you’ve gone and made me get ahead of myself. Before I can even begin to think about the chilling, wrongheaded, and hateful words the shooter uttered, and what they mean for America’s relationship to itself, I want to take us away from South Carolina, where the confederate flag still flies over the state house, to the Dominican Republic. There, in 1937, President Raphael Molina Trujillo ordered the massacre of ethnic Haitians living in the frontier region, close to the border between Hispañola’s forever-contentious sister nations. The orders he gave national troops and civilian reserves was to use machetes, because bullet riddled bodies would betray governmental involvement in an attempted genocide that was intended to look – in the interest of legality – like a civil uprising. Whether someone lived or died depended on how they pronounced the r in perejil, the Dominican word for parsley (thus the name Parsley Massacre). If you rolled the r you were Dominican and thus spared. If you pronounced it as a w sound, you were Haitian and thus chopped to death. Many weren’t even given the parsley test though, but rather summarily cut down because of the darkness of their skin.

I think it’s important to go on this particular trans-historical and transnational journey, with stops in 1937 at Trujillo’s El Corte in the DR, today’s impending mass deportation of ethnic Haitians from the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, and the terrorist attack on the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, because the relationship between terror and citizenship in each instance is one we should think long and deeply about. Though separate and unique instances of violence against black communities, which should absolutely be considered and commented upon individually within their unique context and circumstances, they nonetheless collectively offer a singular and timely opportunity to think about why today – with all the good work folks like Rachel Dolezal do – we in our supposed progressive democratic societies continue to see daily racially-motivated violence committed against people of color by perpetrators whose actions are facilitated and protected by the laws of the land.

If you know what happened at La Frontera in ’37, you cannot help but watch the events that have unfolded since a 2013 Constitutional Court decision to strip generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, with the unnerving horror at history repeating itself. The decision stipulates that Dominicans born after 1929 to parents who are not of Dominican descent will have their citizenship revoked. It’s worth noting that the date of retroactive revocation chillingly and even mockingly predates that of the 1937 massacre. Where anywhere between 15,000 to 35,000 people of and believed to be of Haitian descent were chopped to death by state order in 1937, today, we are talking about an estimated 500, 000 Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been sentenced to a civic death or sorts. Many of them have no connections, familial or otherwise, to Haiti.

After an initial international outcry over the possibility of rendering stateless almost half a million people, the government of the DR launched a program that would consider granting legal residency to non-citizens who could establish their identity and prove they arrived in the DR before 2011. That is, they have to prove they were not a part of the the post-earthquake surge of Haitians into the DR. Nonetheless, the disingenuousness of what appears to be a diplomatic and generous program is revealed in its requirements and its approval rate. The thing is, you don’t ever really have to think about the paperwork that allows you to traverse the world until you need to do just that—say if you’ve never left your country of birth to make a life in another one. Today, on paper, I am a copiously documented non-resident alien who has resided in the US since 2001; my existence in this country has been documented by four different resident programs that we can think about as similar to the one proposed by the government of the Dominican Republic. The volume of documentation I have needed over the years to legitimize my presence is astonishing. The most basic of these is a birth certificate, which in the case of those subject to the ruling in the DR is among the necessary documents when filing for legal residency. Today, officials estimate that there are 500, 000 people who might be eligible for this legal residency, but as the Miami Herald notes,

employers in the Dominican Republic are not providing workers with documentation to prove they have been in the country long enough to qualify. Another hurdle has been the Haitian government, which despite pledges to improve the process has been slow to provide birth certificates and other forms of identification to its citizens and has charged more than many people can afford to pay.

Today, only 300 of the 250,000 who have applied for these permits have received them. When the security of your existence in a particular place is contingent on your ability to produce corroborating paperwork, your inability to do so devalues your existence in that place, reducing your humanity to the papers that justify your presence, and makes you vulnerable to the kinds of violence that we see all over the media if we look closely enough. Here. Here. And here. Moreover, the state essentially denies you its protections and leaves you vulnerable to those it charges with enforcing the security of the homeland, on behalf of those citizens it claims, against the ones it does not. If you are me, it is at this juncture that what is happening in the Dominican Republic today meets the delusions of the white terrorist who murdered nine black people in a South Carolina church last night.

Of course, you are well within your rights to say no one in the US lives under the threat of deportation in quite this way, but that would be a stupid thing to say. What happens to Haitians in particular in detention centers in Santa Domingo, Nassau, or South Florida resoundingly resonates with the more opaque corralling and terrorizing of brown and black people who might as well be locked away in Krome for all the state sanctioned terror they confront walking down the street, listening to loud music, hanging out at a pool party, or at church. At least the Dominican constitution is transparent about what it is up to. We in the United States have yet to begin to acknowledge, understand, and do something about the ways our legislative framework also sanctions the right of some citizens to terrorize others, on the basis of race, under the corrupted logic of protecting a white supremacist imagining of the homeland from black and brown outsiders.

The white supremacist logic that underlies both the past and present relationship between Haitians and Dominicans in the Dominican Republic is the same one that underlies the shooter’s delusional version of what constitutes “our country,” the things from which it needs to be protected, and whom it needs to exclude. To understand this, we need to remember that the Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere. It resulted in the establishment of the world’s first black nation at a time when European colonial domination of the region was supreme and the newly minted United States was only just testing her own imperialist chops. Haiti as a nation has continued to pay for this since. The Haitian Revolution in many ways is the specter of imagined retaliatory black violence realized, and laws all over the region since then have sought, often violently, to guard against the violent resistance from the subjugated that subjugators often fear and can vividly imagine. The Dominican Republic’s historical memory of itself as a colony of Haiti obviously stokes this fear in ways that have become normalized within its national fabric. It celebrates, for example, its independence from Haiti, but not from Spain.

The US on the other hand, did not really need the threat of another Haitian Revolution to amp up its own strategies of protection against black rebellion and overthrow. Indeed the strategies geared towards protecting those legitimized as American citizens from those categorized as laboring chattel dates back to the 1600s, and work to inscribe within the national imagination who is a person/citizen with protections under the law, and who is property and thus bereft of protection. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes,

In 1650, Virginia mandated that “all persons except Negroes” were to carry arms. In 1664, Maryland mandated that any Englishwoman who married a slave must live as a slave of her husband’s master. In 1705, the Virginia assembly passed a law allowing for the dismemberment of unruly slaves—but forbidding masters from whipping “a Christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.” In that same law, the colony mandated that “all horses, cattle, and hogs, now belonging, or that hereafter shall belong to any slave” be seized and sold off by the local church, the profits used to support “the poor of the said parish.”

Let’s not let that first provision escape us. The right to protect oneself and one’s property with arms is definitive of who a citizen is in the United States. It is a notion as old as time. Moreover, the right to bear arms defines citizenship at the same time that it decides who is denied that protection and thus barred from citizenship. A bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea in the hands of a young black man can be mistaken for weapons and he can be summarily and extrajudicially executed for just that mistaken imagining. The rest speaks for itself, to the extent that the latter are incorporated into the dehumanizing fabric that continues to this day to marginalize and wreak violence against black lives.

If the Haitian Revolution presents a too-close-to-home reminder of the possibility of black retaliatory violence, the black church historically is also a powerful symbol of black organization and resistance. This is a part—perhaps the biggest part—of why its literal structure and members have been subject to violence since the Jim Crow era. We can also understand the attack on members of this particular church, more specifically, because of its history as the spiritual home of Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom after he won the lottery and fomented a failed insurrection among 9000 of Charleston’s slaves. Emanuel AME was burned to the ground back in 1822 because of its association with Vesey, but once rebuilt, it later housed audiences for civil rights speeches given by Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr, and Coretta Scott King. Last night’s murders there was a calculated hate crime, meant to strike a blow to a generations old symbol of black community and resistance.

Church, I’m so tired of coming up in here and talking all the time about race, but I will not risk the wrongheadedness of those who want to displace race as a focus of our conversations, before we have fully come to terms with the ways we all live its implications no matter what color where we live says we are. To the extent that the government of the Dominican Republic and white supremacist networks in America continue to see race as a divisive marker that must be policed by white supremacist terror – aided and abetted by pro-pro gun legislation – it is unwise for us to shift our focus. Indeed, while I agree that perpetually parsing racial politics risks a form of essentialism that works to perpetuate rather than mitigate equitable equality, I also know the full story has yet to be told and understood about how race affects all our lives in life-and-death ways.

Globalism exacerbates the relationship between race and statelessness that has existed since Europeans discovered the Western hemisphere and began importing Africans to do the labor of extracting its wealth. Statelessness is a confounding mode of being not only because it leaves those subject to it without the protections and rights available to those imagined to be legitimate citizens, but also because the absence of the markers of legitimacy du jour is tantamount to a sentence of nonexistence and horrifying vulnerability. Here in the US, the vulnerable version of statelessness lived by black and brown people is not nearly as transparent as in the Dominican Republic. On that point alone, the country that brought us Trujillo appears to have the United States beat.

Nope. I did not want to give Rachel Dolezal a second thought.

But here I am, giving this more than a couple thoughts – committing thoughts to text even. I blame the ubiquity of the conversation about this white woman who passed as black for the last ten years, achieving what are considered benchmarks of African American ethnic responsibility and success such as presidency of an NAACP chapter, racial activism, and an academic position in an Africana Studies department in an American university. She came up at a dinner party last night; then two different people asked me what I thought about it; the likkle man inboxed me not one, but three truly perplexing additions to the batshit crazy story this morning, because he knows I am just here quietly and sometimes not so quietly wrestling with this. Like Jacob with the angel, I can’t let this mess go until it makes some kinda sense to me, but as I have said when asked, I don’t quite know what to make of it. Neither do I have any cans for this and hope in earnest that Luvvie Ajayi recovers from jetlag soon, so she can set things right with the insightful snark.

Everything I know about the workings of race, ethnicity, and identity in the hegemonic organization of society offers me no reliable insight. Instead my thoughts are working in concentric circles that don’t help me form an opinion about Dolezal and what she has done, certainly not one that I am willing to utter out loud, with conviction, much less one I am willing commit to print. Should we celebrate her as relinquishing white privilege and embracing blackness as progress? Isn’t the idea that you can relinquish white privilege the very essence of white privilege? I can’t even touch the transracial mess yet. Intuitively I know it’s not quite right, but I have yet to read our think any thoughts that explain why it isn’t quite right convincingly enough, so I will sit on my intuition and keep reading until such time. Couple days ago, Kara Brown, on Jezebel, identified the visage of our collective response to this perplexing madness as the expression on Marc Lamont Hill’s face as he watched the Huff Po Live segment where Dolezal’s parents revealed her whiteness.

Mark Lamont Hill on Jezebel

I am Mark Lamont Hill’s face. I mean, humph. Ok. Lets run through some possible options of what exactly might be going on here. What exactly are we to make of this woman’s decade long existence as African American (or, as she says she prefers, black)? I’ll start with ones that seem generous: maybe we are being punked. Ashton Kutcher is about to make the prank comedy comeback of a lifetime and he has enlisted the help of Rachel Dolezal to develop an elaborate performance art project to do it! See? Makes sense, right? Ok maybe not the Ashton Kutcher and Punk’d part. But she is a visual artist, and a la Vanessa Place—who has been tweeting Gone With The Wind verbatim for the last six years to bring attention to the text’s racism (as if we didn’t already know)—maybe Dolezal has made herself into an art project to bring attention to the problems of institutionalized and systemic racism in America today. Of course this would mean, as with Place, that we have to ignore all of the problems of disavowed privilege that attend such projects, and so the art project route hardly constitutes a pacifying explanation for this behavior. Ok, let’s try another one.

Maybe the two white people who claim they are her parents are hoodwinking us. Maybe she really did live a life filled with experiences of class, race and gender based strife, violence, and trauma. Who are we to say that Jesus Christ is not the witness on her birth certificate because she was not born in a teepee in the Montana bush? We don’t know that she and her family did not hunt for food with bows and arrows. Here’s the thing: maybe because we are so familiar with what the stories of black women are supposed to look like, we become all the more suspicious of stories that seem to reflect the stereotypical facets of such lives too perfectly. Why should we believe her parents’ narrative and not the one she lives out, perfectly, on Twitter, Facebook, local papers and other media, at every opportunity God gives?

No? The argument that maybe we are judging her incorrectly from false information from unreliable sources isn’t quite right either? Alright, last one.

What if she has the condition, the opposite of Michael Jackson’s that Uncle Ruckus of The Boondocks claims to have: revitiligo?

Fine. I know you can tell I’m being disingenuous with this one. But, while I hesitate to invoke health pathologies casually, because that would be irresponsible, maybe Dolezal really does think of herself as an African American woman and has lived a life that manifests what she imagines that to be. The end.

Syke. While I don’t think the answer to the question of what exactly is going on with Dolezal can easily be answered by any of these three scenarios, I also don’t think parsing this particular question is the most interesting one that might be asked here. Rather, what is most interesting to me is how she was able to be as successful as she has been at this particular performance, and what that in turn means for me and other young black female educators who also do the very hard, often thankless, even more often embattled work of teaching about the relationship between power and racial identity while occupying raced bodies. Yep, this is where we lay off the jokes and be serious for a second, because what disturbs me most about this entire kerfuffle is how it will make an already hard job harder.

In thinking about Dolezal’s success at performing the role of a young black educator, activist, and artist, we have to also think about the intellectual capital inherent in the dissemination of knowledge about identarian difference in American institutions of higher education (however embattled this intellectual capital has always been and continues to be). What I am thinking about here is similar to what Iggy Azalea does with African American cultural capital in the realm of music. Bear with Iggy and me for a couple of sentences. The cultural capital of hip hop, as an ethnic American popular form, relies for its popularity, marketability, and ultimately profitability on its practitioners. And a performer draws on that capital whether or not they happen to belong to the group whose experiences vouchsafe it. The thing about understanding race, culture, and ethnicity as a set of social relations, habits, practices, and traditions, is that the aspects of these that are celebrated are all the more susceptible to commodification and appropriation. If you can gain popularity and wealth from doing so, bully for you, Iggy! But what does this all mean in terms of academia?

In the last forty years – the last decade of which sees Dolezal coming into her intellectual and personal renaissance – ethnic studies units have become a significant facet of the university landscape. One of the many institutional purposes these units serve is to signal an institution’s commitment to the very important work of diversifying predominantly white spaces, not only demographically but also in terms of curriculum. Thus, new spaces for intellectual engagement and advancement were created, and are now predominantly occupied, by people of color. Moreover, in the last couple of years, since the onset of the social media age, more and more platforms exist for successful racial activism at the grassroots level and these operate primarily on the premises of wide dissemination and visibility. It has been incredible and empowering to watch the rise of phenomena like “Black Twitter” which, never mind heinous trolling, nonetheless function as decentralized but powerful hubs of contemporary social justice activism.

This unofficial movement, for instance, pressured Bank of America to in turn pressure one of its subcontractors Core Logic to investigate and eventually place on administrative leave one of its employees who was caught on camera during the pool party incident in McKinney Texas being verbally and physically abusive to teenagers of color. Rahiel Tesfamarian of Urban Cusp, for example, is among those who have been doing good and high profile work with the #blacklivesmatter, #notonedime, and other anti-discrimination movements, all through the power of social media based mobilization. It is by no means easy work to be an activist, but because there is work to be done, the ease of social media dissemination means there are tools to do good work and be visible doing so.

What’s a white woman gotta do to get a real chunk of that intellectual capital? Well, we kinda know what she has done.

I don’t raise this as an issue of intellectual capital to suggest that a white person (female or otherwise) has no place in ethnic studies or even racial activism – far from it. As many in the various social media spheres have resoundingly already said, knowledgeable non-black allies are an extremely important part of the work of agitating for true/material/equitable racial equality. The decision to don blackface to do this work however – and fun and jokes aside, I don’t doubt her earnest (if not misguided) commitment to this work – does real harm to the cause, because it threatens to delegitimize hard fought battles. Now the national discussion on race (and everybody knows we can only have one of these at a time) focuses not on the role of police in protecting racialized forms of community property, or God forbid on the racial attitudes held by people who were pushing risky mortgages on black communities not too long ago, but . . . on Rachel Dolezal.

One more thing, before I issue the benediction, church. Performing specific versions of racial identity, typically associated with stereotypes, such as Dolezal does – the squalid childhood; the much-photographed hair game; the end of semester sweet potato pies for students; the stories of physical and sexual violence, and trauma – not only foreclose the imaginative possibilities for other kinds of African American and even non American black female lived realities, it does so by reinforcing a particular kind of narrative as the only one with the power of authenticity. This is not to say these experiences only exist in the realm of stereotype, and I mean in no way to delegitimize them. In fact, if the violence, discrimination, and trauma that are a part of her narrative are not her actual experience (or are but are perhaps not attributable to race), it is tantamount to a dangerous fetishization that takes (among other things) real victimization and trauma experienced by women of color and reduces it to a prop in an ultimately selfish personal performance. It trivializes and delegitimizes serious social justice issues at a time when many are working hard to make these issues matter to those beyond the victims, black, white, or otherwise.

The cause of universal equity and equality among all humans, I finally want to say, is done more harm than good by circumscribed logics of identity and belonging. Dolezal’s entire person is an expression of a circumscribed logic of identity. She achieves belonging at a skill level that is impressive, but nonetheless worrisome. Worrisome, because she brought this logic into her classroom and disseminated it to students, with a fishbowl activity no less. Now, at my Midwestern state institution, I have enough problems with students who come into my classroom with limited experience of fellow students not of their race, much less their non-white, young, female professor whose accent clearly indicates she is not from the US. The need to now also have to deal with the ways Dolezal’s performance undermines my efforts to help students think about stereotypes in complex ways that go beyond simple “see race is just a performance it doesn’t matter” declarations makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry.

This is why I did not want to think about this woman and what she has decided to do, for whatever reason, earnest, malicious, or whatever shade between. It makes an already personally and emotionally exhausting job harder. It’s summer. School is out. I really don’t want to have to think about this particular kind of bullshit. Other bullshit, sure, but not this. And while I am aware that me writing a post about it just contributes, I on another level eagerly await her departure to the place where we send all our formerly trending topics.

Nope. Tidal is not what we have been waiting for.

What’s not to like about an artist owned streaming service? Why wouldn’t one support sticking it to “the man,” aka Spotify, iTunes, Amazon etc.? Shouldn’t artists be properly compensated for their work by streaming music services? Is it not a crying shame that Aloe Blacc had a song that was streamed 168 million times but got paid only $4,000? Nothing. Hells yeah. Yep. And it’s gahtdamb shame. But, to connect the contemporary civil rights movements such as #blacklivesmatter and the entrepreneurial energies of a streaming service, by artists for artists, is to build a bridge that takes you to nowhere else but delusion. In as much as Tidal represents revolutionizing potential for fairly compensating artists and everyone involved in producing music and music related products, in ways that other services have not, it does not hold similar potential for revolutionizing the material inequalities that ail society at large. Nope. Tidal’s success is not the force for making black lives matter. This is primarily because the logic of entrepreneurial fairness and profit generation, on which the success of Tidal relies, is the same logic that belies the systemic discrimination that present day civil rights movements are working to make more visible, so they can be dismantled. Today, this logic, boys and girls, is called neoliberalism.

But lemmie back it up a bit before I start laying down the heavy business of the relationship between contemporary economic theory and social justice and why we would need to think about these things alongside each other, when figuring out exactly what power something like Tidal possesses and for whom. Depending how far under a rock you may have been you may or may not know that Jay-Z launched a new music streaming service back in April called Tidal. Many of the biggest and most successful names in the music game, past and present, are stakeholders including Rihanna, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Jack White, Madonna, Arcade Fire, Usher, Chris Martin, Alicia Keys, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, deadmau5, and Drake among others. It is billed as the first artist-owned streaming service and starting at $9.99 a month, the same price as Spotify’s Premium service, audiophiles can enjoy hi-fi music, videos, and exclusive curated content from some of the biggest names in the music industry. Exclusive content in particular is how Tidal is distinguishing itself from similar services, a marketing strategy that is drawing both excitement and criticism from music fans.

Take just this week, the video for “Feeling Myself” by Nikki Minaj featuring Beyoncé was exclusively released on Tidal, joining among others, Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” The much-anticipated video featuring two of the biggest performers in the game generated buzz aplenty all over the interwebs for Tidal, especially among those who had all but forgotten about it – like myself. You see, I follow both Queen Bey and Nikki Minaj on the Instagrams and Nikki had been posting shots from the video all day. Of course I had to see the video, but I am not among those who are currently spending $9.99 on any streaming service and as such waited patiently for someone to come through with the free albeit bootleg YouTube link. Yes. It does not escape me that such is precisely among the behaviors that the Tidal engineers endeavor to curtail, but I came up in a Napster world and while I do buy music, there are still vestiges of a freeness mentality at work in how I consume music. Explaining this further might take me down a path I don’t want to go right now because it will take me too far away from the whole economics and social justice thing that I’m building to, so suffice it to say that while I do buy the music I want to listen to over and over again, I am also quite alright streaming the deadmau5 I grade papers in my office to for free, with commercials via Spotify, and am disinclined to pay for a subscription to any streaming services.

And I am not the only one. One of my favorite bloggers Luvvie Ajayi echoes this sentiment about Tidal in particular.

Of course this did not go without criticism, because soon after, she posted this hilariousness:

Buy a T-shirt, y’all, because I respect Luvvie’s hustle and she should be rewarded for giving a girl life and laughter daily. Fun and jokes aside though, what was meant to be a crabs in a barrel reprimand for refusing to support a venture that should be supported for its underlying ethos of fair compensation for the work of artists, is what I want to hone in on here. This is because it is in this place of support that Tidal and its fans try to meet social justice. With Jay-Z as front man, we can think of Tidal as a black owned business. In the wake of the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson last summer, consumerist activism was mobilized via #BlackLivesMatter and campaigns like #BoycottBlackFriday that advocated against spending money during the biggest shopping season of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, there was an 11% drop in spending. Whether or not this drop correlates to the social media generated protests is not an immutable fact, but it was significant enough to bring about the #BlackDecember and #NotOneDime campaigns that advocated for holiday shopping only at black owned businesses.

Against this politicized backdrop geared towards putting your money where your mouth is, it is easy to imagine why the refusal to buy into a service fronted by black faces and dollars would seem impolitic. Moreover, what this convergence between buying power and civil rights activism conveys is how easy it becomes to imagine a refusal to buy into Tidal as de facto support of the racially discriminatory power structure against which so many have been struggling over the last year.

Indeed, Jova himself says as much in a recent clip circulating on social media under the title “Jay-Z Slams White Supremacists.” I note the title here not because Jay-Z himself utters the phrase “white supremacists,” but rather that his performance is read as a response to this power structure.

In the freestyle/Tidal commercial, Jay-Z promotes the virtues of his streaming service by mixing the politics of business and civil rights activism. Entrepreneurial energy – “don’t ever go with the flow/be the flow” – is marshaled to advocate for striking it out on your own, against companies that refuse to compensate workers equally for their work. The flow that Jay-Z performs here is one that is poised to go against the likes of YouTube, which is identified as “the biggest culprit” because “Them niggas pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get.” Working for this tenth is likened to slave labor: “You know when I work I aint your slave right?” Tidal presents an alternative to artists like Jay-Z to own and receive full compensation for their work, and no longer be subject to exploitative arrangements in an already established system. Thus, “You know I aint shucking and jiving and high-fiving, and you know this aint back in the day right?” “Back in the day” harkens back perhaps, both to slavery and Jim Crow, presenting a lyrical opportunity for Jay-Z to merge his arguments for the necessity of launching his own streaming platform, outside of the established system, with a larger critique of the continued existence of institutionalized racially discriminative power structures. Thus though he may “know this aint back in the day,” he cant tell based on “the way they killed Freddie Gray right/ Shot down Mike Brown/ how they did Tray right?” He goes on to conflate Eric Garner’s death with the continued exploitative actions of existing distribution companies, “Let them continue choking niggas,” but positions Tidal as the embodiment of defiance: “We gon’ turn style, I aint your token nigga/ You know I came in this game independent, right?/Tidal, my own lane.”

In the freestyle, Jay-Z takes the racist injustices at the core of multiple killings of black men at the hands of law enforcement — and those like George Zimmerman who imagine themselves to be enforcers of the law — and positions them alongside the logic of working outside of the existing system through the establishment of a new system, in a manner that makes a streaming music company a beacon of political and civil rights resistance. I dunno about you, but that makes me a little bit uncomfortable, in part because what is being lost here, in favor of successful business promotion, is the systemic and material transformations that are necessary for freedom and justice to truly be equitable for all. Arguably, new equitable systems like Tidal are thusly positioned as potentially powerful alternative sources for the generation of systemic change, but the neoliberal ethos that belies such projects makes them more enabling of the systems they imagine themselves bypassing, than disabling and dismantling these same systems.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not at all questioning Jay-Z’s political integrity, neither am I critiquing Tidal’s intentions. I think it is poised to do great things for artists and those who work in the production of music, so stand down, Beygency. Moreover, as far as politically minded super rich folk go, I am Team Jay and Bey, largely because their philanthropy and political activity is transnational and treated in much the same way that they do their private lives, with the utmost privacy. dream hampton, in her attempt to defend Jay-Z from critiques of his silence surrounding the events in Ferguson, New York, and more recently Baltimore, revealed in tweets that “when we needed money for bail for Baltimore protesters, I asked hit Jay up, as I had for Ferguson, wired tens of thousands in mins.” As NeNe Leakes criticized Kenya Moore on the most recent reunion of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, true charity is not about being seen on social media writing them checks. If NeNe is not your cup of tea for moral authority, hop on over to Matthew 6:1-4 for the stuff about hiding the things your right hand does from your left hand. As far as social justice is concerned the Carters often get it red-letter right. The Tidal business though, requires some careful decoupling – business from social justice – because really, it is in no way the revolution everyone who is for a more equitable and just society, including the Carters, hope for.

Why not though? This is largely because of its complicity with neoliberal values. Now that’s the third time I’ve used that particular troublesome n-word and this time I shall tell you what it means, at least in the context of what I am talking about here. Neoliberalism is both a set of economic logics and political rationales that promote free market competition as *the* optimal source for producing the best possible outcomes for everyone universally. Put another way, subscribing to and participating in free markets is the only way for all of us to be successful. Free market means everyone gets to compete in a variety of commercial markets on equal terms. This equal term is often tricky though, because equality does not mean sameness, and in a world where a variety of differences mediate in matters of equality – because history – justice becomes necessary for producing the mediating equitability (fair and impartial conditions) that can in turn deliver true equality, despite historically manufactured differences.

Free market competition considers itself equal in theory, but it isn’t equitable. Thus neoliberal values in many ways deploy logics of freedom and equality to obfuscate material differences that put some on a better footing towards economic success than other. Entrepreneurial innovation, individualism, and self-promotion are the hallmarks neoliberal values. We can be all that we can be if we just try super hard! Neoliberalism is at once a set of ideas, an over-arching ideology, and even governmental programs. It is in large part successful because of our relative unawareness of the ways it structures our everyday lives. Thus, according to David Harvey it is a “conceptual apparatus” that has “become so embedded in common sense” that it is “taken for granted and not open to question” (5). With this unconscious indoctrination in mind, the questions I began with about what could possibly be the problem with something like Tidal that has fair competition and entrepreneurial innovation at its center, merit revisiting.

Neoliberalism champions entrepreneurial innovation, individualism, and self-promotion under the aegis of free market competition at the same time that it dictates state divestment of public resources, deregulation of trade, finance and labor markets, and the withdrawal of state support and provisions for organized labor. At its simplest, at the same time it encourages you to pull yourself up by your own boot straps, it also removes all the protections and facilities that allow you to possess a pair of boots to stand on to begin with. Or better yet, shifts fiscal supports to corporations who in turn have the privatized responsibilities of attending to public welfare – if they feel like being charitable. What’s more, as far back as the nineteenth century, the rhetoric of personal responsibility held the promise of transformation from slave to agent, familiarizing us with a logic of self-reliance that licenses the state under neoliberalism to gradually relinquish all its responsibilities to its citizens, relegating social welfare instead to the charity of private corporate institutions. You ever wonder why collective bargaining is always on the chopping block whenever new corporation comes to town with promises of social sponsorship and recreational facilities? You ever wonder why corporate sponsorship is just about everywhere, but schools are under-funded and under-reseourced?

We see this at work in Baltimore, where the city supported the development of Under Armor’s downtown headquarters through $35 million in tax incremental financing at the same time that it divested itself of city run recreational facilities. Thus, “while the city ran seventy-six recreation centers twenty years ago, it now only operates only forty-one (another ten are privatized). City officials credit the reduction to a lack of resources.” Ironically, at the same time that it enables corporations to function profitably, neoliberal logic encourages bodies electorally charged with the social welfare of citizens to delegate this responsibility to private entities. We could also talk about the financial predation on the citizens who live in Ferguson Missouri, by the city. A condition that, according to the DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department, contributed to the circumstances that led to Mike Brown’s death. Thus:

Rather than facilitate conditions that are beneficial for all, free market policies encourage such predatory approaches within municipal governance, disproportionately benefits those already in the material position to compete, and disadvantages those who are not. We see the effects of this most clearly in the US’s wealth gap

The bottom 90% of American families holds 25% of the country’s wealth. Sobering, no? No? Let me try again. The wealth gap in the America is also divided along racial lines. Surprise!

According to The Pew Research Center the median wealth of white households was thirteen times (13 times!) more than black households in 2013. But what about folks like Jay-Z and Beyoncé or even the Obama’s who have achieved places in the highest echelons of all the land? Their success means that the possibility for material equitability under neoliberalism exists, right? Sure, if you only want it among an exceptional cohort rather than universally.

So herein lies the problem of Tidal: it participates in a larger pervasive structure of free market governance that celebrates entrepreneurship at the same time that it shirks larger material social responsibility, and perpetuates the success of an advantaged few while continuing to deny the same from the many. What’s more in its subscription to neoliberal values, it is also predicated upon a system of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. If we are more attentive to our own individual efforts towards profit generation, who is paying attention to how material inequality is built into the very system that organizes and structures all our lives? The same system that created the need for things like #BlackLivesMatter ?

Can a person live though? I mean, can a person make some paper and live? I’ma hit up the OG Black Atlantic scholar, Paul Gilroy for this one:

The continuing effects of systematic racism on black life cannot be dismissed and there are instances where that very impact seems – perhaps even where racism is to be sacrificed in capital’s interests – to have inclined people towards the solutions proffered by neoliberal styles of thought which can be taken over, possessed and made one’s own. In other words, the history of being denied recognition as an individual has actually enhanced the appeal of particular varieties of extreme individualism.

In other words, the desire to live, to eat, to make good, even obscene paper – to be successful according to the measure of neoliberal norms and values – is all the more attractive to those subject to historic discrimination and disenfranchisement. At the end of the day though, this is a catch 22. Nonetheless, here is what I think is true: Tidal does not offer the possibility for making material realities more equitable for everyone. To see it as a force for universal civil rights transformations, particularly ones that will bring equitable value for black lives, is to miss its reliance on the same economic power that continues to devalue black lives for its own success.