Required reading for black study and abolition: a syllabus for an abolitionista on the run.
“Abolition requires an ongoing radical belief in the impossible.”
In this series we ask organizers, artists, and academics to share books that inform their thinking about abolition. This week’s contributor is troizel d.l. carr.
On one hand, it is important to note that, to me, the generous circularity of trying to think together the conceptual performances of “black study and abolition” is already a mild inhibition and an over-joyous invitation. Insofar as it inhibits anything, and—this stop on the conjunction junction—functions to separate and (re)conjoin black study from its own theology, from its own internal will to tear something up, change the space around, cut a rug (1). When we look past the drama of scripture, of how it's written and re-presented, we see that the addition is actually the re-turn, the re-mix, the double back, as a hamstrung way to close a circle that was never meant to be broken, that's been un-broken, but elaborates itself in the shards of a shattered and dusty old mirror (2). However, in its brokenness, the call back is an invitation to finger along the textured contours of black study and abolition in different forms, in forms that might not make proper sense to any given number of us due to our own (political, social, theological, philosophical) commitment(s) to difference as separation (3).
Ultimately, I'd argue this is far beyond the point abolition hopes to make, which is really a point with no real, fixed location, more like a conglomeration of color-coordinated non-coordinates brought together by the warmth of some other sun, wrapped in rainbows—like a flash mob, like a protest, like a mosh pit, like a choir (4). More to the point, its point is pointlessness. Instead of search for a finite, fixed knowledge-position—as abolitionistas, as fugitive con artists—we move away from any proper position and move toward the improper, improbable, impossible. We destabilize the strict disciplinary regulations that tell us how we should come to know, how we re-present that knowing, how that knowing gets circulated (5). Indeed, we stretch our belief towards something different than what we think we already know of; we gather differently textured objects with a different life to tell our own story—we pile it on some more, we get a second, third helping. This imaginative, magical system of giving in (dis)belief—abolition(ism)—is one that finds abundance in scarcity and refuses to accept scarcity as a possibility for given reality; it believes that the kingdom has already come, no distinction between here and now and then and there (6). It goes against any Law that would mandate the death and arrestation of the active will of those it has retroactively called "citizen," but whose inclusive exclusion is prerequisite to citizenship's bounds (7).
“We stretch our belief towards something different than what we think we already know.”
On the other hand, this all goes without saying. Abolition, as the study of how to take your chains off in the technologically-warped, lovesick chain gang we call political and libidinal economy, actually enacts getting you and your other yous free, even those you might not want to "identify" with as another elaboration of you (8). Said another way, abolition is the study of blackness, when we stand to believe that “blackness” both unintentionally exceeds and unwittingly extends toward s its sedimentation in the body as entangled categories of racialization (race), epidermalization (skin color), and inherent acculturation (culture) . Same as femininity, same as queerness (10). This is a different gathering of the skirts, some component of what Angela Davis recently called for as “black radical unity,” of having to organize in the party with some (black) folks that you might not want to be unified with—if you had it your way (11). Forgive the citation, but Hortense Spillers' discussion of Invisible Man and treatment of the qualifier “black” is most helpful here: “In its articulation of a figure of subversion, Invisible Man glitters with a notion of black disobedience. In this case, the qualifier is no necessary illumination since all disobedience, in the very force of the language, is black” (12). Invisible Man's glitter, his (an)aesthetic rendering of “blackness as disobedience,” spectatorship of self from outside one’s own disembodied awareness, in someone else’s disembodied awareness, circumvents and resonates in the infinite history of racial blackness’ performances, of being testament to the ways that it was criminal to “be black” and study, “be black” and unify, “be black” and revolt, but that’s all you can and do (13). It didn't matter if you were at abolition/witch/bible/sex/communist/protest study after dark or not, you could always be accused of studying, accused of gathering, so why not do it anyway?
“Abolition actually enacts getting you and your other yous free.”
We must remember that abolitionism in its full, fugitive swing was an evangelistic gospel. It was all about telling somebodies, so they could tell somebodies, so they could tell somebodies how I:you:we got over (14). It was a transaesthetic instructional manual that could only escape the bondage of the body in song, in moan, in scream because it rearranged the senses, rearranged the way senses made sense (15). Abolition requires an ongoing radical belief in the impossible, a continuous suspension of disbelief, an irrational everyday thinking that constantly trumpets that “impossible things are happening every day,” where, according to Whitney Houston and Brandy, “impossible” transliterates in a different key as “it's possible” when you’re on the move, on your way to the ball (16). To study that (im)possibility, to keep singing of its possibilities in the face of its roaring absence, is also always to unleash its omnipresent powers into a World that has already been rendered inefficient and ineffective, especially when hyper-actively hyper-reactive.
The texts gathered here as "required reading for abolition" present a translucent ensemble of various texts that have brought me to black study and abolition as a performance of/in the every day. The queer modality of this collection is in its failure to hit all the points, in its inability to say all the words one might need to hear to be convinced (17). It hopes, at least, to tamper with the privileging of disciplinary genre and what accounts for epistemology, to take seriously every text and object it encounters to be a starting bloc for how to get the hell out of here. This animates the inexhaustibility of this syllabus of errors, going off a given political script to follow after the eros of desire to be free, to free others, by any means necessary. These books are narratives steeped in a (counter-)mythic fantasy. The characters in these stories—some of the imagination, all of the margins of Historical record—have to give up distinct ways of seeing and sensing the world that strike a (white picket) fence between self and other, between labor and love, identity and personhood, the human and animal, the real and mythic, the divine and profane, the possible and the impossible in order to go to some other land, some place where their heaven could be today. In all cases—and most importantly, together—they articulate a shared and irreparable need to get up out of the current condition, out of your-self, and shake it all loose. They present an introduction to reading practices beyond the page, beyond the text, beyond the narrative world, and into the felt out there, the wild beyond, the world that needs saving, where these the wild things are. In them, I hope we find and pass around the broken gift, like a letter, like a loaf of bread, the greatest story ever told, that the World we wish to be abolished has already come and gone (18).
three (3) texts on radical belief:
Mychal Wynn. The Eagles who Thought They were Chickens: A Tale of Discovery. Rising Sun Publishing, 1998.
Julie Andrews Edwards. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. HarperCollins Publishers, 1974/2004.
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. HarperCollins Publishers, 1937/2006.
two (2) texts on everyday thinking:
Saidiya Hartman. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. W. W. Norton and Company, 2019.
C. Riley Snorton. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
one (1) text on becoming-abolitionista:
Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2013.
Supplemental reading/cited works:
(1) Hortense Spillers. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book" in Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
(2) Darieck Scott. Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination. New York University Press, 2010
Frantz Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 1952/2008.
(3) Rizvana Bradley, "Other Sensualities," an introduction to The Haptic: Textures of Performance, a special issue of Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 2015. https://www.womenandperformance.org/ampersand/rizvana-bradley-1
Denise Ferreira da Silva. "On Difference Without Separability." https://issuu.com/amilcarpacker/docs/denise_ferreira_da_silva, 2016
Jeanne Vaccaro. "Felt Matters" in Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Vol. 20, Issue 3: The Transbiological Body, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1080/0740770X.2010.529245
(4) Isabel Wilkerson. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Penguin Random House, 2010.
Valerie Boyd. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Scribner, 2004.
José Esteban Muñoz. "'Gimme Gimme This… Gimme Gimme That': Annihilation and Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons" in Social Text 116, Volume 31, No. 3., 2013. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-2152855
(5) Julietta Singh. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. Duke University Press, 2018.
Alex Proyas, director. Knowing (film). 2009.
(6) José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Duke University Press, 2009 / Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. University of Minnesota, 1999
Kara Keeling. Queer Times, Black Futures. New York University Press, 2019.
(7) Claudia Rankine. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014.
Roderick A. Ferguson. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. University of Minnesota, 2004.
Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.
(8) Toni Morrison. Beloved. Alfred A. Knopf, 1987/2004.
Frank B. Wilderson III. Red, White, & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Duke University Press, 2010.
Jared Sexton. "Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word" in rhizomes, issue 29, 2016. http://www.rhizomes.net/issue29/sexton.html.
Karen Barad. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, 2007.
(9) Denise Ferreira da Silva. Toward a Global Idea of Race. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
(10) Marquis Bey. Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism. The University of Arizona Press, 2019.
(11) Dream Defenders. Sunday school: Unlock Us, Abolition in Our Lifetime (with Dr. Angela Davis). https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=615123319385564&ref=watch_permalink
Joshua Chambers Letson. After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life. New York University Press, 2018.
(12) Hortense Spillers. "Ellison's 'Usable Past': Toward a Theory of Myth" in Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. Random House, 1952/2010.
(13) Daphne A. Brooks. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Duke University Press, 2006.
Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
(14) Aretha Franklin. "How I Got Over" on Amazing Grace (Live Album). Rhino Atlantic, 1972. Also, see subsequent documentary Amazing Grace, 2019.
Yolanda Adams. "How I Got Over" live performance in The Aretha Franklin Tribute. BET Black Girls Rock, 2018. https://youtu.be/fL_mb8jtirM?t=557.
(15) L.H. Stallings. Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures. University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Amber Jamilla Musser. Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance. New York University Press, 2018.
(16) Robert Iscove, director. "The Wonderful World of Disney" Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (film), 1997 / Music video clip of "Impossible" with Whitney Houston and Brandy, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_5eho0zcrs
Malik Gaines. Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible. New York University Press, 2017.
Sara Jordenö, director. Kiki (film), 2016.
(17) Jack Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.
(18) Barbara Browning. The Gift. Coffee House Press, 2017.
troizel d.l. carr (performance studies, phd candidate, NYU) is black and alive and that means more than these words can express. Currently a teaching fellow at the new museum of contemporary art (nyc), troizel's scholarship and performance practice places them somewhere at the cross-section of blackness, queer and transness, performance, protest, theology, and (popular) culture | troizel.com.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]