Blackness is understood as always already criminal, and homonormative imagination is no different in this respect.
“To achieve ‘equality’ meant participating in the proliferation of carceral logic, militarism, imperialism, and capitalism.”
In this series we ask organizers, artists, and academics to share books that inform their thinking about abolition. This week’s contributor is Zaynab Shahar.
As I prepare to enter another decade of my life, I want to use this opportunity to do more than offer a list of books that I consider integral to Black study and abolition. Rather, I want to use these texts to chart a journey of my becoming and the role radical study has played in my formation and my continued evolution.
I came out of the closet and of age in the early 2000s; a time when carceral logic, rainbow capitalism, and militarism were touted as wholly necessary solutions to the achievement of LGBTQ “equality.” The specter of Matthew Shephard's death continued to haunt queer life as hate crime legislation became the defacto solution for solving the problem of anti-LGBTQ violence. The direct action and radical organizing that marked the ACT UP era of HIV/AIDS rights had all but faded from view. Instead, the franchising of HIV/AIDS products (think Gap RED t-shirts) as a way to consume our way to a “cure” took hold. Upon dismissal from the U.S military for violating “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” Dan Choi hit the speaking circuit trying to convince LGBTQ people of all ages that queer people should be able to serve our country proudly in every sense. Perched behind the green curtain of campaigns for queer military inclusion, rainbow capitalism, and loyalty to carceral logics sat Gay, Inc like the literal Wizard of Oz -- defining the contours of citizenship, equality, and belonging. To belong, to achieve “equality” meant participating in the proliferation of carceral logic, militarism, imperialism, and capitalism through the twin flames of homonormativity and homonationalism.
“Dan Choi tried to convince LGBTQ people that queer people should be able to serve our country proudly in every sense.”
Suffice to say, I couldn't see myself within the vision of “safety” or “equality” mainstream LGBTQ politics offered, nor did I care for the enclosures it required. I did not want to bend and contort myself to fit into an irrevocably broken cisheteronormative world. I wanted freedom, to be free from a world that required exchanging continued subjugation for a sliver of “equality” and an apparition of “humanity.” I yearned to set the world on fire, raise it to the ground, and among the ashes envision another world where dropping bombs and raising prison bars were not seen as laudable hallmarks of safety or peace. So I spent a lot of weekends at the local library, the Gerbert-Hart archives, and used bookstores around the city of Chicago. I turned to Black feminism, queer anarchism, animal liberation, queer anti-normativity, and mad movements/radical psychology. From there, a smattering of movements and thought formed the basis of my radical study.
After beginning my foray into queer anarchisms via Myspace and the blogosphere, I somehow stumbled across That's Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. That's Revolting gave me an imaginative space to understand myself outside of homonormative scripts and logic for sexual citizenship. Marriage equality is not a solvent for the majority of issues facing Black LGBTQ: housing, healthcare, access to HIV/AIDS treatment, the criminalization of Black queer and trans people. The authors within That's Revolting gave voice to that and set forth visions of queer worldbuilding rooted in abundance as opposed to the scarcity thinking of Gay, Inc.
“’That's Revolting’ gave me an imaginative space to understand myself outside of homonormative scripts and logic for sexual citizenship.”
That's Revolting laid the groundwork for my engagement with Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, Against Equality, and Queer Injustice. In my final years of undergrad, these books challenged me to think about the fallacy of carceral logic and its rhetorical constructions of safety, violence, victimhood, and suvivorship. Despite the inclusion of James Bryd's murder into the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, hate crime logic ultimately necessitates white victimhood as its point of departure. Blackness is irreconcilable with the larger aims of incorporation into carceral logic that are billeted to protect LGBTQ folks. Blackness is understood as always already criminal, and homonormative imagination is no different in this respect.
Sitting with this knowledge and its inherent contradictions broke me. It continues to break me. Cycling through waves of anger and grief, I often wondered what justice would mean if violence befell me: who would gather together in my name to raise my name? My answers to this question ultimately changed as my experiences with youth dating violence followed me throughout college. In the absence of LGBTQ anti-violence services at home and on campus, I turned to The Revolution Starts at Home. I wanted to understand what survivorship could look like outside of the law. Did I really need the law to heal? I did not want the partners who harmed me to be incarcerated, nor did I want them to be isolated from the queer spaces we often shared. I wanted them to have the support of community and friends as they accessed the resources they needed to heal and be accountable for their actions. Yet these views seemed wildly contradictory to the Tile IX cases that were sweeping the country and landed on the doorstep of my college campus. The Revolution Starts at Home taught me both healing and accountability are difficult choices, ones we cannot do alone in the abjection of isolation.
“Hate crime logic ultimately necessitates white victimhood as its point of departure.”
As my foray into abolition deepened, I started thinking about ways to fuse faith and cultural work. In the process of discernment, I turned to bell hooks’ Teaching Community, particularly the Teaching Critical Thinking series. Teaching Critical Thinking reminded me of my mother's kitchen table pedagogy, that the goal of knowledge is to engender deep thought as opposed to memorization or rote adherence. More to the point, thinking collectively can be a liberatory practice, the foundations of alternative world building. Teaching Critical Thinking challenged me to think about what it means to embody the hospitality of abolition and Black radicalism. I find argumentation as a means of persuasion banal. Instead I'd rather engage the folds of the imagination that our carceral world deliberately leaves dormant. I understand Black radicalism as a collaborative process, one whose bonds are generated largely through the intimacy of conversation. Such intimacies of knowledge and otherwise dreaming are modeled in hooks and Cornell West's Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, another work I think with every day. Through dialogue and disagreement, the words of hooks and West form a shared ground of joy, playfulness, and deep inquiry. It reminds me that there are many textures to Black radical life, that there is joy to be had and found as much as there is principled debate and struggle. There is also a spiritual synchronicity West and hooks share that I find instructive as a faith cultural worker. They are coming from different perspectives and orientations, yet there is a space within Spirit where they are able to meet each other.
To close, I want to issue a challenge whoever is reading this: find a form of care work that speaks to you. I keep a copy of the Fireweed Collective’s Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs right next to my books on somatics, trauma stewardship, mad studies, radical psychology, and disability justice. This part of my library reflects my belief that a core part of abolition's radical hospitality is unlearning and relearning the contours of relation. A carceral world makes us unskilled at caring for each other. Care work is a skill that requires study and practice. Find your care work and hone your craft.
Zaynab Shahar is a writer based in Chicago, IL. Currently, Zaynab is pursuing a doctorate in comparative religion at Chicago Theological Seminary. Their research focuses on the relationship between gender, ritual obligation, and public religious space within Jewish and Islamic Law. Zaynab also researches and writes about spiritual abolition and the theological imagination, as well as abolition and disability.
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