I am hoping my call will provoke/inspire us to practice forms of life and liveliness differently.
“I’d like to promote an awareness that humans are not the center of the universe, but merely a temporary presence in it.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Jayna Brown. Brown is Professor in the Graduate Program in Media Studies at the Pratt Institute Her book is Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Jayna Brown: I don’t know that people need any help understanding what the planet and its life forms face. There is nothing subtle about the condition of things, as we face climate crisis and mass extinctions, a raging pandemic, rapacious capitalism, violent forms of white supremacy and authoritarianism. Any world that has Bezos and Musk in it, with $128 billion and $148 billion fortunes while the world burns, freezes and bleeds, is one in deep trouble. And what does it say that the richest man in the world wants to escape to Mars? Colonize there?
I put ‘we’ in inverted commas because not all people are suffering in the same ways; the intensity may have tightened for some, but the forms are all too familiar to many. In our present (and ongoing) dystopia, I am hoping my call, to remember black forms of worldmaking and modes of being beyond the human, beyond death, will be fortifying and provoke/inspire us to practice forms of life and liveliness differently. Apocalypse is the opportunity for drastic change, which is what is urgently called for by our times.
I want to share the ways I am inspired by histories of collective and communal living and dreaming that do not look to dominant and dominating systems for recognition or redress, but to themselves for alter ontologies, ways to perceive and inhabit the self, and epistemologies, both existing and improvised, with which to live in the worlds we are making. Imagined worlds and thought experiments hold possibility for new or re-enlivened forms and practices of relationality. I’d like to promote an awareness that humans are not the center of the universe, but merely a temporary presence in it, and are enmeshed in wider and complex ecologies.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope that younger people can take away, at least from my first chapter, how broad a genealogy and how deep a philosophy of liberatory activity there is to draw on, and I don’t mean the (usually male) revolutionaries who are traditionally looked to for inspiration. I think that contemporary activists and organizers have already moved on from some of the politics I criticize in my book that have in the past dominated how people think of radicalism—the masculinist, patriarchal, heteronormative, militarist, state and nation building versions that shaped peoples’ conceptualizations and imaginations. They have tuned in to this deeper philosophy of liberatory possibility. Of course there is a long history of revolutionary thinkers not bound by these strictures and who have been here to teach us how to enact these philosophies---Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis (my undergraduate teacher) Hazel Carby (my graduate advisor) June Jordan, Barbara Ransby, and so many others. So it is heartening when I hear younger people speaking of abolition, anticolonialism, anticapitalism; calling for creativity, joy, play; moving away from hierarchical structures and male dominated leadership, and opening up social formations of gender, sexuality and kinship. An ethos is arising. What I’d like to contribute to is building this history of radicalism, based in not just protest but movements committed to holistic change. There is an alternative history of radical activism not based in the antagonistic dialectic of master/slave recognition.
Where I see we are is in the place that we need to join ecological activism with activism committed to fighting racist violence. I would add, though most activists and community organizers probably don’t need to be reminded, an appreciation for the fortitude and endurance it takes to keep going. And the pitfalls-- the ways some ‘recovery,’ some of the concessions of capitalism, can lull us. We have to embrace the fact that we may not see change in our lifetimes, or even the lifetime of our species. But it is the process that matters. Utopia is a doing.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Yes indeed, there are many. For one, anthropocentrism (the concept of human supremacy), and speciesism (the idea of the human as a discrete species set apart from others). Of course these are inflected by race, so we need to unlearn what we think ‘race’ is. I take from the anarchists the need to refuse hierarchicalism, and develop/improvise new systems of relationality.
We need to unlearn what sex is, and the ideology of patriarchy, masculinism, heteronormativity, etc. and especially the larger framework these intertwined systems form in, that is the belief in competition and the need to dominate. We need to unlearn, to denaturalize (which is what speculative fictions do) all ideas of what the human is. What I was perhaps too shy to fully take on is the master/slave dialectic as a model for subject formation. As I see it this is part of an enlightenment form of individualism out of which hierarchicalism and racisms, etc. arise. We need to unlearn the need for change to be based in antagonistic confrontation.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Although I do write about individuals, I hope to be able to think of groups, collectives, and movements as inspiring to me, instead of turning to and affirming a star system. I think instantly, of course, of the Combahee River Collective. But there is a pantheon of folks who have put their backs into the work of change, many of whom I will never know their names. I also love the flaws of the people in my book—who are mad souls all—rather than their heroism. It is failure that often points to courage. I think I take most of my inspiration, or I am the most attracted to, the people who are unruly, misbehaving, or disobedient in some way, usually those who get occluded from history. Nanny of the Maroons springs to mind; Cinque is another. They represent the force we keep alive in our struggle. I like to think of our work as shifting who is remembered, but also how people are remembered, since history is so malleable. Ida B. Wells I’ve always called my matron saint, as her anti lynching campaign was based in the knowledge that lynching, and all forms of racist oppression, are about power and control over black people, and not simply cases of moral failing that can be fixed by religion or education.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Hopefully the imagined worlds in the science, science fictions, speculative fictions, mysticism, music and spiritual visions that I talk about in the book set a precedent. The questions at the core of it include: in our imaginations and fantasies, how far can we estrange ourselves from current (Euro) ontoepistemologies? What assumptions, including those about the human, about social formations, about sex, can we unearth and unlearn? What do we think are the possible processes of change themselves? Hopefully, and as I wrote this happened for me, reading about and listening to the way others have and are imagining, alone and together, will give us permission and encouragement to do the same, on a daily basis.
My book is not a how-to, or a handbook, and I don’t think it is particularly polemic. Imagining, envisioning, creating, playing, innovating, these are verbs that don’t fit too well with stiff proscription. I hope my book encourages people to break rules and take risks; young academics don’t need to keep their work to close readings of novels. I invite them to think archivally, think creatively while in the archive, find things that haven’t been studied and study them in a new way. To imagine new worlds one has to be imaginative, and imagine with others.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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