This essay works at the intersection of queer critique and black feminism to elaborate the problem that the incorporation of minority difference into the institutions and imaginaries of contemporary global power poses for our habits of thought in feminist studies. Attending to black women’s sexuality in state narratives of black freedom and black freedom-to-secure against the backdrop of the racial makeovers of the late twentieth century, and at the same time turning to black women’s expressive culture as a site that both reflects and troubles those racial makeovers, this essay argues that black women’s sexuality functions at once as a lubricant for neoliberal governmentality and as a domain of collective preservation within this order. The author reads the queer force of black women’s survival in the Museum of African American History’s Changing America exhibit, along with Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 novel Salvage the Bones, as a narrative modality that exposes the limits of queer antinormativity in contemporary queer and feminist theories. Given how black women’s sexuality serves as a resource for both premature death and surplus life, attention to its complex and contradictory figurations in the contemporary era emphasizes how normativity functions as a complicated set of relations and movements, a systematicity in which even that which we have understood as nonnormative, other, deviant, or pathological is constitutive of the norm.
Analyses of black women’s sex and sexuality in critical studies of gender and sexuality expose how the vocabularies of queer critique and black feminist thought—organized and driven by terms like normativity, nonnormativity, respectability, margin, and center—leave us faltering in our attempts to grasp the political, economic, and cultural shifts both occasioned and signaled by black women’s incorporation into the U.S. imperial imaginary in the decades since World War II. This volume’s invitation to rethink norms, as Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson propose, “not in relation to a compulsory, uniform standard, but through an expansive relationality among and within individuals, across and within groups” (15), prompts me to revisit the terminologies that draw black feminism, women of color feminism, and queer of color critique together. In this essay I work at the intersection of queer critique and black feminism to elaborate the problem that the incorporation of minority difference into the institutions and imaginaries of contemporary global power poses for our habits of thought in feminist studies.1 Attending to representations of black women’s sexuality in state narratives of black freedom and black freedom-to-secure against the backdrop of the racial makeovers of the late twentieth century,2 and at the same time turning to black women’s expressive culture as a site that both reflects and troubles those racial makeovers, I argue that black women’s sexuality functions at once as a lubricant for neoliberal governmentality and as a domain of collective preservation within this order. Given how black women’s sexuality serves as a resource for both premature death and surplus life, attention to its complex and contradictory figurations in the contemporary era emphasizes how normativity functions as a complicated set of relations and movements, a systematicity in which even that which we have understood as “nonnormative,” “other,” “deviant,” or “pathological” is constitutive of the norm. “In collating the world,” after all, the norm “gathers upeverything” (Wiegman and Wilson 17, emphasis added).
One of my primary aims here is to analyze the complex functions of normativity in relation to black women’s positioning within contemporary U.S. power, which demands attention to the transformations in the deployments and understandings of racialized sexuality since World War II and to the ways that those transformations have accompanied larger shifts in the maintenance and securitization of global capital and U.S. hegemony. Indeed, black women have filled a central position in the explanatory frameworks of the global security apparatus that emerged over the course of the Cold War and spread a web of containment and detainment in its wake, through the era of what has been called the War on Terror. Throughout the post-1945 period, black women in information media, mainstream film, and U.S. political culture have represented the promise of racial inclusion while embodying the state’s most profound exclusions. From Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur to Lani Guinier, Marian Wright Edelman, Condoleezza Rice, Anita Hill, and Michelle Obama, black women have featured in post-1945 U.S. political culture both as foreign threats and as harbingers of American democratic promise vis-à-vis multicultural inclusion. The “racial break” that effected a major transformation in U.S. race relations after World War II—from the exclusions of Jim Crow to the inclusions of a domestic civil rights agenda that splintered antiracism, anticolonialism, and internationalism—was also, that is, a “gender break” that rewrote U.S. metanarratives of politics, intimacy, and sexuality in part through the spectacular picturing of black women in positions of marginalization and exclusion, on one hand, and power and achievement, on the other.3
Black women’s sex has discursively facilitated the racial and gender break that throughout the post–World War II decades has given rise to “minority cultural forms and practices” that, as Roderick Ferguson suggests, express the “complex relationships between institutionality and textuality” (Reorder 17). While discourses of black pathology and strategies of containment and capture dominated mainstream culture’s response to twentieth-century black radicalism and the threat of anticolonial resistance and third-world revolution as the United States rose to dominance and positioned itself to lead the world in capitalist democracy, counterinsurgency also took the form of productive discourses of black women’s inclusion, reformation, and exemplarity. The gathering of these productive discourses in the service of safety is what I call throughout this essay the black normal. The black normal, that is, refers to the constellation of narratives, images, and state discourses that tie black freedom to the nation-to-empire-building project through images and imaginaries of everyday black empowerment within state institutions, an empowerment secured through both sanitizing and pathologizing representations of black sex and sexuality.
What follows is an attempt, then, to plot black women’s sex and sexuality as an area of tension between black feminist theory and queer critique. In asking what attention to sex alongside the range of practices, movements, ideologies, and prescriptions that I gather under the sign of the black normal makes possible for a reinvigorated understanding of normativity, I turn to multiple sites of black sexuality’s normalization within U.S. public culture and black expressive culture and read these as loci of cultural activity that frustrate easy distinctions between normativity and nonnormativity, provoking us toward a more precise vocabulary of contemporary power.
Black Flower in the White House
If state narratives of black freedom-making fueled the stories of American democracy and empire in the decades after World War II, representations of black women’s sexuality in American public culture have surfaced, over these same decades, to announce the incorporation of black subjects as both practitioners and objects into the governing apparatuses of an increasingly global security state. At the same time, because black women’s sexuality has been defined by its pathology in political, academic, literary, visual, and information cultures, we could say that it retains its potential to destabilize the very structures of citizenship, safety, and belonging that now depend on and herald its entanglement with the technologies and narratives of global power. Representations of black women’s sex and sexuality, in other words, have facilitated the transformations in political economy, military power, governance, and identity (and the discourses corresponding to these shifts) that the term neoliberalism has come to index while also exposing the instability of those very transformations.4 The collisions and collusions of black women’s sexuality with neoliberal discourses of both security and danger have profound implications for discussions of normativity within critical studies of gender and sexuality. In U.S. cultural production, these collisions and collusions take the form of irresistible fictions of black women’s empowerment—take abc’s prime-time drama Scandal as one prime instance—as well as sensational narratives of black women’s public service that hold black sexual-gender deviance promiscuously close to black sexual-gender morality.
In August 2011, for example, an album featuring photographs of Condoleezza Rice was uncovered by rebels when they ransacked Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound. U.S. news outlets represented Gaddafi’s treasure trove of Condi pics as evidence of his affection for the former national security advisor and secretary of state. nbc News reported Gaddafi to have said, for example, “I support my darling black African woman […] I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders […] Leezza, Leezza, Leezza. I love her very much” (Arnott). Several news organizations printed a photograph of Gaddafi’s photo album being held open on a bare mattress adorned with pink roses. If Rice is pictured here as an object of Gaddafi’s affection, the photograph draws American readers into this bare-bones bedroom scene to bolster the narrative frame of the fugitive Libyan dictator’s deviance and the West’s moral and political purity. Like the photographs of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the photographs of Gaddafi’s compound redirected colonial formulas of identification toward post-9/11 representations of the Arab world. As Anne McClintock describes, these formulas depict photographic subjects as “historically ‘primitive,’ as animalized, as sexually deviant: the men feminized, homosexualized, or hypersexualized; and the women figured as sexually lascivious” (63). Rice’s appearance in the photographs of the album triangulates this projection of deviant sexuality, on the one hand, signaling a kind of contained sexuality (or asexuality) that throws Gaddafi’s perversity into sharp relief and, on the other, serving as a target for readers’ fantasies and fears of Afro-Arab relations in the shadow of what Sohail Daulatzai calls the “Muslim International”: the internationalist alliances among black Muslims, black radicals, and anticolonial movements in the Muslim third world (xvi).5 If Rice’s projection as a paragon of normative femininity—in part self-authorized and self-authored—draws a Manichaean line between a democratic, multicultural United States and the dark underworld of Gaddafi’s regime—made all the more perverse by the dictator’s fantasies of her of all people, someone whose respectability is on full display in the well-manicured poise of each picture—Rice’s blackness no doubt shuttles into the photograph the very threat of the “primitive” that it is supposed to sanitize.6
When Rice’s memoir, No Higher Honor, was published two months after the album was discovered, Gaddafi’s admiration of her again became material for tabloid-style speculations about his sexual proclivities and Rice’s implication in them. In the memoir, Rice writes of her 2003 visit to Tripoli: “At the end of dinner, Gaddafi told me that he’d made a video tape for me. Uh oh, I thought, what is this going to be? It was a quite innocent collection of photos of me with world leaders—President Bush, Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, and so on—set to the music of a song called ‘Black Flower in the White House,’ written for me by a Libyan composer. It was weird, but at least it wasn’t raunch” (703). Rice provokes and then deflects the reader’s wildest flights of fancy, conjuring the possibility of a porn video in the Libyan dictator’s home only to deflate it. Too, the double meaning that accrues to “flower”—delicate nicety, sexual jewel—demands that Rice assure the reader that the gifts of the slide show and song are only “weird” tokens of diplomacy, not “raunchy” objects of foreplay. A writer for Vanity Fair captures the U.S. media’s lurid fascination with the story and the persistence of interest in Gaddafi’s fantasy life, Rice’s deflections notwithstanding. Celebrating the memoir’s revelation of the “other side” of the Afro-Arab “love story,” the writer intimates that in the memoir, the story “gets worse, by which we mean better”: “What [Rice] doesn’t know is that ‘black flower’ is an Arabic colloquialism meaning ‘foreign leader about whom I have sexy dreams, and I mean that in the most grotesque way possible’ ” (Weiner). Rice’s photographic appearance at the center of post–Cold War diplomacy and security as the exemplar of ideal femininity—“black flower”—as well as at the center of Gaddafi’s political arousal within media narratives of unruly Afro-Arab desire begs us to consider how the appearance of black women’s sexuality here secures the United States’ self-representation as a beneficent multicultural democracy even as it conjures the “signifying property plus” that has historically named, or rather misnamed, black womanhood.7 The public secret of the photo album, that is, exposes how discourses of security are tied to imaginaries of black womanhood that recall the tropes that black feminist theory has so carefully attended to—Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel—and, at the same time, explodes these very stereotypes, prompting us to rethink “normativity” not as a rule, but rather as a complex, ever-shifting systematicity.
The stories of Condoleezza Rice in Gaddafi’s fantasy allow us to place contemporary American narratives of freedom and security in conversation with black women’s sexuality and textuality and to query the significant (if unstable) relationship between representations of black women’s sex and the discourses of homeland, nation, and sexual attachment. If, in the context of the post-1945 period’s experiments with racial incorporation, black women’s lives and black women’s culture have now been hailed by gender categories such as woman, mother, and wife, which both eroticize and rationalize capitalism, then the task of the black feminist critic is not only to theorize the social subject who, according to Spillers’s foundational work, is cast “out of the traditional symbolics of female gender” but also to make a place, in theory, for the social subject who is thrust into such symbolics (“Mama’s” 80).
Living Text for a Dying Nation
If black women such as Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Obama are imaged at the center of U.S. freedom, democracy, and safety, the significant problem they present for queer theory is, still, that black women’s sexuality, rather than being “structured along an axis of normal and perverse paralleling that of white women,” operates according to the laws of what Evelynn Hammonds calls a “different geometry,” a mathematics we have yet to master (139).8 Twenty years after Hammonds published “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality” in the summer 1994 issue of differences, the black female queer, in Sharon Holland’s words, continues to be produced “in a historical register that matters only to her” (93). That is, “representations of her have shifted from the dangerous and volatile to the abject and weak” (65). But the problem that the black woman presents for queer theorizing is also one that Robyn Wiegman raises in Object Lessons, that is, that when antinormativity takes the place of sex at the center of queer theorizing, queer theory “both refuses the logic of normalization and incessantly revives it in order to mark its relation of alterity to it” (339). In this case, “the field must cultivate, often to the point of idealization, the most resolutely alternative—that is, the most radically perverse and socially unassimilable—in order to do justice to the project of alterity and difference invested in the sign of the queer” (339). If the black woman has historically operated in theory as the “black hole” against which the very axis of normativity is made legible, to celebrate her nonnormativity is hardly to explore, in Hammonds’s words, “the eroticism of differently located black women” (140). In other words, it becomes difficult to theorize the multivalent deployments of black women’s sexuality in the public sphere when black women’s nonnormativity functions as a given.
As the innovations in queer theorizing in the 1990s coincided with scholarship in black studies, black feminist studies, and the emergent formations of black queer studies and queer of color critique that focused on intersectionality, the politics of respectability, and black lgbt histories, the terms normativity (or heteronormativity) and nonnormativity (or nonheteronormativity) provided a critical vocabulary for rethinking the guiding assumptions of queer theory and queer politics, on the one hand, and black studies and black politics, on the other. The disparate strands of black gender and sexuality studies mobilized these terms to address at least three important intellectual aims: 1) to unveil and dislodge a history of intraracial tensions regarding proper intellectual, political, or social comportment or “respectability”;9 2) to reveal queer theory’s elisions of racialized sexuality by expanding “queer” to include a wide, heterogeneous range of practices and subjects identified with “deviance”;10 and 3) to narrate an alternative genealogy and archive for theorizing sexuality (by, for example, arguing that “there are other terrains for the interrogation of sexuality, terrains that do not begin and end with queer studies”) and therefore take women of color feminism for “inspiration for intersectional analyses of nonheteronormative racial formations” (Ferguson, “Normative Strivings” 85). Each of these discursive interventions relied on the guiding assumptions of black feminist studies—that “life is complicated” (Williams 10), for example, or that “many of the experiences Black women face are not subsumed within the traditional boundaries of race or gender discrimination as these boundaries are currently understood” (Crenshaw 1244)—to expose precisely how analyses of black women’s culture and black women’s experiences necessarily exploded the binaries of normative/nonnormative, margin/center, and normal/deviant. For instance, the demonization of poor black women and their sexual choices by state agencies during the Reagan-Bush years prompted Cathy Cohen “to remind us of the numerous ways that sexuality and sexual deviance from a prescribed norm have been used to demonize and to oppress various segments of the population, even some classified under the label ‘heterosexual’” (“Punks” 457). And Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black, by analyzing the coarticulation of the “normative ideologies of civil rights, canonical sociology, and national liberation” during the 1970s, argued that the post–civil rights years witnessed the simultaneous “upward and downward expansion of African American social structure as the polarization of heteronormative and nonheteronormative African American social formations”: in this context, for Ferguson, the late twentieth century “produced the single black mother and the black lesbian as the female-outsider in contradistinction to the normative black middle-class subject who could claim legitimacy within African American communities” (131). In these ways, “nonnormative” and “nonheteronormative” were names for the forms of intellectual, sexual, cultural, and political expression that exceeded black bourgeois propriety and that interrupted the prevailing codes of intellectual inquiry and intellectual celebrity within black studies, queer studies, and feminist studies.
If studies of racialized sexuality since the mid-1990s have suggested that black women and black women’s sexuality, whether “queer” or “straight,” are given to a certain “nonheteronormativity” because of how they are positioned vis-à-vis political economy (i.e., liberalism) and intraracial social-political formations, they beg for further critical analysis of the two primary agents against which nonnormativity has been articulated: the state and ethnic nationalisms. What has drawn queer of color critique, black feminism, and black queer studies together, that is, is an agreement that nonnormativity is produced in relation to the policing practices of both state and intracommunal institutions—everything from courts and congressional legislation to the disciplinary scaffolding of African American studies. A significant question arises from this history of reading black sexuality against institutionality, particularly given what queer of color critique has itself revealed: that in the new racial formation that emerged after 1945, categories of privilege overlapped with categories of stigma, such that distinctions of race, gender, class, and sexuality would increasingly become faulty predictors of value and nonvalue within institutions such as universities. Can queer theorizing adequately address the intersection between black women’s subjectivity, its representation, and the emergence of black women as ideal feminine subjects in public culture, in information media, and in literature, film, and television? Can “queer” be mobilized to deconstruct the unlikely position that the black woman sometimes occupies at the very center of—and simultaneously as threat to—a U.S. imaginary of security and the good life?
To mobilize queer and feminist analytics in an attempt to discern how black women and black women’s sexuality are increasingly positioned at the center of discourses of nation in an age of global counterterror is to wrestle with, and perhaps against, a paradox within feminist and queer theory: that, on the one hand, black women are approached as the exemplary and exceptional figures of the “nonnormative” and that, on the other, black feminism is increasingly identified as a sexually conservative discourse whose adherence to a politics of respectability hinders its capacity to respond in meaningful ways to the lives and cultures of contemporary black women. Black feminism, writes Jennifer C. Nash, “has permitted a pernicious sexual conservatism, wearing the guise of racial progressivism, to seep into its analytical framework” (“Bedfellows” 52). Nash argues that “black feminism’s tendency to foreground examinations of black women’s sexual exploitation, oppression, and injury at the expense of analyses attentive to black women’s sexual heterogeneity, multiplicity, and diversity” has produced black feminist inquiry as “an intellectual formation that tends to avoid questions about black women’s sexual desires, black queer subjectivities, and the various forms of black women’s pleasures” (53). L. H. Stallings likewise suggests that “black feminism’s failure to address black women” stems from the fact that “when most black feminists discuss gender equity and women’s empowerment, they employ discourses of dead language, feminism, and women’s rights, which consist of strategies that may or may not have worked for their time or their living texts” (134). In this way the black body marks the “angry boundary between feminism and queer studies” while exposing black feminism’s unfortunate outmodedness (Holland 69). Lisa Thompson’s 2009 Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class argues that when “writers render middle-class black women as sexual subjects,” their “work should be read as a black feminist intervention” (13) because they challenge boundaries of respectability, which have linked middle-class black womanhood to sexual conservatism and an “aggressive shielding of the body” (2). An increasing focus on black women’s pleasure within and against black feminist critique, then, has positioned black feminism’s sexual conservatism against the sexually liberated lives of black women themselves.11
If studies of racialized sexuality (informed by the often overlapping fields of black feminism, black queer studies, and queer of color critique) have posited black sexuality as nonnormative while at the same time overstating the link between sexuality and oppression, Rice’s emergence as both a definitive agent of late twentieth century U.S. governmental power and a key figure of post-9/11 sexual culture interrupts the presumptions about normativity that have guided these fields. Her public narratives, that is, allow us to examine the uses of both respectable and unrespectable iterations of black femininity in post-1945 imperial public life and cultural expression. By the end of the Cold War and the solidification of the War on Terror that was announced in the wake of the September 11 attacks, black women’s incorporation into the governing apparatuses of the state at higher and higher levels—eventually at the position of secretary of state—has led to the black woman’s serving as a figure for the “public positioning of oppressive black conservatism and the normalising of the same while supporting amazingly offensive policies and politics, and masquerading them when convenient under a black umbrella” (Davies 395). In this act of the United States’ ongoing racial drama, as I note above, conservative characters like Rice play a key narrative role. A more pressing concern, though, is the proximity of liberal desires for black freedom to security projects of U.S. global capital. Thus, my purpose in probing the contraction of blackness, sexuality, and womanhood in the context of the “American Century” (and then the “New American Century”)12 is not to reduce the heterogeneous representations and expressions of black women in the contemporary era as erstwhile versions of “queer liberalism” or “homonormativity”; it is rather to query the “eroticism of differently located black women” within a matrix of a political and economic order that is shifting on its axis.
That is, if black women have come to be seen as always already nonnormative while black feminism has been summarily, perhaps unduly, collapsed with respectability, then a turn to sex itself may reveal how the black woman, in Stallings’s words, functions as a “living text for a dying nation,” how depictions of her sexuality in a range of texts in high and low places work to secure the U.S. nation-state’s survival at the twilight of American empire even as it enables her own preservation within the nation-state’s project (132). Speaking to this analytical possibility in her 2012 Erotic Life of Racism, Sharon Patricia Holland asks, “Can the aims for the ‘woman of color’ feminist project be harnessed for discussions about liberalism in a post-9/11 world?” (78). Holland interrogates whether queer of color critique’s assessments of liberalism and its investments in nonnormativity limit engagement with the “black.female.queer” theorist even as they produce the “black.female.queer” subject as indispensable to critique, worrying that the work on liberalism that emerged with and in response to post-9/11 discourses of homonormativity and queer liberalism “marks the political landscape around us so severely as to sever one population from another so that liberals are out there somewhere and the rest of us (call us black feminists) are wedded to the always already political critique or rigorous action” (79). Having “assigned black.female.queer a very high critical standard to live up to,” Holland further contends, “the ability to speak to her quotidian messiness has been lost altogether.” As a result, black feminism’s “biodiversity” or “the diversity of voices of black feminist theorists” is lost too (88–89).
In the next two sections, I attend to that everyday messiness and that banal mess of erotics, power, complicity, and resistance that characterize sex after the black normal. I do so by paying attention to black women’s desire in cultural texts as, indeed, living text for a dying nation: as a potentiality that has been set to work both for the survival of the global state and for the survival of those abandoned by, or abandoning, or living in reckless abandon within, the state. These readings, first, interrupt the definition of the state as the normative behemoth against which nonnormative black subjects articulate their existence by interrogating state narratives of black freedom; and second, locate black sexual subjects who exist not outside of but inside and athwart that which might be understood as “normative.”
A Day of Hope
In December 2012, the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African American History and Culture, temporarily located within the Museum of American History, mounted an exhibit to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The exhibit, Changing America, like the stories of Gaddafi’s photo album, positions black women’s sexuality as a lubricant for the union between black freedom and the logics of militarization, containment, and counterinsurgency that have been shuttled into U.S. public culture under the sign of the postracial in narratives of neoliberal multiculturalism. This “military multiculturalism” sets a color-blind army against a perpetual enemy, contrasting “modern and Western universalism with a provincial, premodern region” (Widener 78). At the same time, the exhibit exposes the essential contradictions of this unholy alliance of blackness and Western military moralism: as I pointed out with regard to Condoleezza Rice, the black woman’s body brings into each picture of itself its history of significations with deviant sexuality, wayward desire, and antinational chaos even in the moments when it appears to seal the projects of liberal democracy or neoliberal multiculturalism that proceed through the incorporation of racial, gender, and sexual minorities.
In Changing America, a three-dimensional narrative of black politics rarefied to a one-hundred-year march from 1863 to 1963, the black freedom struggle between these two historical bookends is pictured in the visual language of security and military might that have come to dominate U.S. political discourses since World War II and, even more conspicuously, since September 11, 2001. Here it is the black male soldier who anchors the story of emancipation, and the black male leaders who succeed him, from 1863’s Frederick Douglass to 1963’s Bayard Rustin, are retrospectively granted a citizenship made possible only through the Civil War soldier’s sacrifice for the union. In this story, the black soldier, “armed for glory,” awakens the nation to its highest calling, paves the way for a civil rights movement that “fulfill[ed] the promise of democracy,” and anesthetizes the military and carceral regimes of national and global security that now, rather than Jim Crow segregation, “form the principal background condition to the contemporary theorization of race” (Singh 299). The display of black male soldiering and leading throughout Changing America makes explicit, in other words, the usefulness of a particular narrative of black freedom—one that features empowered and charismatic black men as the locomotive of historical change—to the nation-to-empire building apparatuses of the post–World War II United States. The exhibit follows up on what Cynthia Young identifies as “Bush-era attempts to align our historical memory of the civil rights movement with the so-called war on terror,” not only signaling “black masculinity’s imbrication in the war on terror” but also rescripting black femininity’s and black female sexuality’s role in representing freedom and security (35–36, 42).
Interestingly, it is the image of a black woman cooling her toes in the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall, elbows to knees, leaning a slight upper torso against the white man pictured beside her, that offers closure at the culmination of Changing America. This black woman’s appearance in proximity to the black soldier-representative and in intimate relation to her white compatriot pictures her at the unlikely center of projections, fantasies, and anxieties about a “changing America.” Given that the photograph of interracial touch is one of the first or one of the last archival objects on display in the exhibit (depending on one’s route through it), it can be read as a point of transfer between the racial past and the postracial present, one that positions black women’s sexuality in the odd—even queer—location within an epistemology of black freedom that depends on the transformation of anticolonial and antiracist social movements into “archivable elements for a transforming U.S. nation-state.” In the photographs of the black freedom struggle now inculcated in “that archiving apparatus known as global capitalism” and on display in the Smithsonian, black feminine sexuality comes into view as, again, that which both secures and threatens the post-1945 racial projects (Ferguson, Reorder 25).
There are two entrances, marked “1863” and “1963,” to the exhibit. If you choose to enter the exhibit through the entry point of 1863, you might browse pictures of slaves on a Beaufort, South Carolina, plantation or study an 1865 tintype of a black Civil War soldier; you might imagine life on the front lines of the Civil War as you gaze at a Sibley tent encased in fiberglass; you might read a copy of the Great Emancipation or ogle Lincoln’s suit and top hat; or you might glance quickly over a commemorative copy of the Thirteenth Amendment so that you can spend more time looking at Nat Turner’s Bible or Harriet Tubman’s lace collar and handkerchief. But as you venture through the material culture and photography of human property, torture, abolition, and emancipation, the sonic archive will remind you that 1963 awaits. You will hear, for example, the final exhortations of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and protest chants will remind you that black freedom, and, you might imagine, a black president, are literally just around the corner. If you enter the exhibit through its right side, choosing to begin with the March on Washington, these cries will no doubt linger with you, as will the images of Dr. King’s pocket watch, an organizing manual and budget for the March in a case under a large black-and-white photograph of Bayard Rustin, and a photograph of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial, a “national stage for civil rights,” in 1939. The sonic and spatiotemporal design, in this way, structures the March as the exhibit’s destination. Indeed, a photograph of civil rights leaders John Lewis, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, Jr., and Roy Wilkins titled The Big Six captures the dominant narrative of black freedom-making that founds the exhibit: black men in uniform save America’s soul.13
Changing America thus mobilizes a master narrative of black freedom to effect the same three-way link between U.S. multiculturalism, counterinsurgency, and public anxieties about internationalism vis-à-vis Afro-Arab resurgence that news stories about Gaddafi’s Condoleezza complex intimated. The exhibit makes black military, even militant, masculinity the narrative ground for global counterinsurgency’s tale of preemptive justice and safety, echoing similar archival maneuvers in American public culture. Carole Boyce Davies points out, for example, that Condoleezza Rice often compared the war in Iraq to the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. In an Essence magazine interview, Rice speculates, “I’m sure there are people who thought it was a mistake to fight the Civil War to its end and to resist that the emancipation of slaves would hold. I know there were people who said why don’t we get out of this now, make a peace with the South, but leave the South with slaves?” (408). In this way, Rice rescripts black liberation as the righteous justification for imperialist invasion in the name of security. The path from 1863 to 1963, then, undergirds the compact of black militant masculinity with state narratives of safety and policing, a compact that also makes legible, for example, Obama’s repeated promises to “put more boots on the Southern border” (Obama).
The Day of Hope photograph, which situates interracial union as the legacy of the March on Washington, places black female sexuality at the nexus of black politics, military/militant performance, and state safety secured through the material and ideological assertion of righteousness. The image of the interracial couple at the Reflecting Pool hangs on a wall facing museumgoers after they exit an alcove showing video of the March on Washington. A panel next to the photograph, promising a day of hope, reads: “With the words still ringing in their ears, the demonstrators boarded buses and trains for their journeys home. Many would return to the same hardships, discrimination, and violence that had prompted them to join the March on Washington. But the legacy of that day endured and increased popular support for the civil rights movement.” Positioned immediately after what might be understood as the exhibit’s climax and dwarfing the case next to it, which holds King’s pocket watch, the photograph offers closure and seals the moment of 1963 within an official history in which black social movements give way not only to legislative change but to the transformation of intimacy on a national scale. And if touch, according to Holland, “both sears the flesh and provides the opportunity for its suture,” the photograph opens up the taboo of interracial sex at the core of the nation’s “wound” of slavery while also offering itself as a palliative (108). The couple sits on a rolled blanket, a pair of men’s shoes resting neatly underneath it and a pair of women’s sandals perched near the edge of the water. The woman leans into herself, holding something close, and the man who leans toward her, slightly cocking his head in her direction, presents a slight smile that softens his dark glasses. Something outside of the frame has caught the woman’s eye, or else she looks away to preserve a moment of solitude (or reflect?). The slip under her summer dress shows, and her companion’s shirt, loosened at the sleeves, appears softened by the heat and perspiration of the day. What we are looking at is a secret. What we are looking at is desire, spent. A sigh, a look away, the caress of a dream.
The bodily posture of the black female photographic subject refuses easy incorporation into the exhibit’s epistemology of black freedom, which situates her as a figure of affective closure who seals the state’s freedom-making project with the hint of sex. If black female sexuality is meant to integrate stories of black freedom into the grand narratives of U.S. democracy after World War II, black women’s serendipitous appearances in the affective nuclei of state narratives of black freedom point to the aesthetic labor of empire while also beckoning to the insurgent ground of survival that, after Spillers, we might call female. In this case, normative renderings of black politics and black sexuality are the grounds for the articulation of security dressed up in state uniform as well as of a vitality not articulated as representation, empowerment, or safety, but rather performed as the living and beating “yes” that, in Spillers’s words, “reconfigures […] certain representational potentialities for African Americans” (“Mama’s” 80). When we arrive in the zone of the yes’s disorganization, we arrive at the female’s survival: where she is without resources; where she finds no inheritance to claim; where she appears in the flesh and claims its monstrosity; where she dangles her toes in the nation’s pool with her slip hanging out and who-knows-what on her mind.
If the exhibit exposes how banal images of black resistance to white supremacy have become in U.S. culture and pictures that resistance in the language of military dominance under the American flag, the image of “hope” clothes this project in sentiment. It not only normalizes black freedom but sets it to work to authorize a military carceral regime mounted in the name of liberty, a regime that might as well begin with emancipation and the Civil War. The packaging of black freedom-to-secure alongside—or rather upon—the disparate forms of black unfreedom depends on the black woman’s labor in a cultural, political, and affective space for which the term complicity is imprecise and whose character is better captured by what geographer Katherine McKittrick terms the “last place they thought of,” or, after Sylvia Wynter, “demonic grounds.”14 This space can be thought (or not thought, or thought only as a last resort) as the everywhere and nowhere of the female’s, or the survivor’s, vitality and dispossession, the space in which, for McKittrick, the black woman is “unvisibly present across the landscape,” both here and not here, both elevated and pressed in on all sides (42). This is the concealed place right before our eyes, the coordinates from which a different map, or a “different geometry,” of U.S. power becomes just barely visible not outside of but rather right in the heart of U.S. political culture or what we have often come to refer to in shorthand as “the state.”
“Make Them Know”
The preceding sections of this essay have queried how black women’s sexuality announces the transformations of a “new American century”; this last section points to an alternative epistemology of black freedom articulated through the unromantic depiction of black women’s sex as a resource for collective preservation. How can black women’s sex and sexuality be understood as both at the center of a “changed” America and on the edge of collective preservation, a kind of living that Cedric Robinson describes when he writes of the “ontological totality” that is the nature of the black radical tradition, a kind of being that shatters our expectations of what survival even means? If black women’s sexuality seals the project of American exceptionalism, positioned as it is as the gateway to the very femininity that functions as the bedrock of national security, it also holds collective preservation at the center of the center. Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, one of the most visible and most celebrated black novels of the post-9/11 period, is a study in this paradox.15
Taking place on a piece of land called “the Pit” in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage (“Wild Wood”), Mississippi, Salvage the Bones is about the maintenance of normal life alongside coming catastrophe and emergency. The imminent disaster is, of course, Katrina, the storm, every once in a while referred to as “the Black 9/11,” that broke the levees and exposed what Clyde Woods calls “Bourbonism”: an indifference to human suffering that leads a regime to create one disaster after another, a philosophy whose “fundamental principles […] have emerged on the national and global stage of neoliberalism” (“Katrina’s” 429).16 Instead of depicting the state’s savage indifference to living, the novel tracks the “blues epistemology” of the Pit, blues epistemology being the term Woods uses to describe “an ethic of survival, subsistence, resistance, and affirmation” that sustains networks of labor and kinship throughout the Mississippi Delta region (Development 27). The embodied knowledge forms that comprise the blues tradition of explanation mark out geographies of surplus life, where those “families, workers, and farmers classified [by social scientists] as tottering on the edge of ‘extinction’ ” outlive the rubrics that attempt to account for their lives and deaths (“Life” 62).
The novel is a first-person coming-of-age narrative that spans twelve days and charts the efforts of Esch Batiste and her family to survive material poverty and the vulnerable position that their material poverty places them in when Katrina arrives. The family prepares for the storm, filling jugs with water and gathering chicken eggs from the woods surrounding their home; Esch and her brothers hunt and eat squirrel as they camp outdoors; Esch feeds on burning desire for her lover, Manny, and is ultimately rejected by him; and all along, Esch’s older brother Skeetah struggles to keep his pit bull fighting dog and her new litter of puppies alive. The novel foregrounds an intimacy between humans and animals, and its logic turns on a maternal analogy: just as Esch learns that she is pregnant, her brother Skeetah’s fighting dog, China, gives birth to a litter of puppies. And just as Esch’s memory of her mother, who died when she was eight years old, denaturalizes her relationship to motherhood, so does China distance mothering from safety. “Mother” names the figure of provision who lives in Esch’s memory as affectionate nurturer, and it names the figure of causeless destruction. China attacks her puppies as they try to nurse, and Katrina is “the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered” and “left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes” (Ward 255). The relationship between the young pregnant girl and the pit bull, both racialized figures of deviance, draws together the novel’s depictions of surplus survival and premature death. In reading Esch as a figure who bridges the subject of surplus survival—she who lives where and when she is not supposed to—and the subject of premature death, I follow Sara Clarke Kaplan in reading black women’s sexuality and maternity as “simultaneously private intimacies and commodities available for public exchange” (“Founding” 783). In Bones, the maternal and the sexual manifest in the body that tells stories of survival, regrounding the black woman’s body in narrative as a crucial site of political iteration. The protagonist, like the ethnographic subjects Spillers writes of in “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words”—black women who “express one of the vocabularies of feeling available to black American women on the meeting between sexuality and survival”—points to the gaps in language that structure feminist and queer theories of black women’s sex and sexuality and gestures toward a new vocabulary for our work (170).
Bones’s evisceration of the distinction between human and nonhuman life opens its ethic of subsistence and sustenance to a field of being—and, importantly, knowing—that doesn’t reject but exists in parallel relationship to the biopolitical operations of the state. For example, when Skeetah enlists Esch to join him in robbing a farmer across the woods, whose shed perhaps holds a dewormer medication that might perhaps save China, who is in a postpartum battle for her life, Esch remembers how their mother would “clean us like kittens” as Skeetah cleans the scratches that bleed down her legs after she is caught in a blackberry bush. Esch and Skeetah “slither like snakes” and “worm [their] way through the woods” (69). Skeetah schools Esch in the mutual interdependence of human and nonhuman life, instructing, for example, that “between man and dog is a relationship […]. Equal” (29). In so doing, Skeetah represents a mode of survival that resketches social and political being. If, as Achille Mbembe points out, the logic of survival pits man against man and “one’s horror at the sight of death turns into satisfaction that it is someone else who is dead,” such that “each enemy killed makes the survivor feel more secure,” a paralogical ethic of survival is also made available in the novel (36). This is the ethic of a blues epistemology, revealed in the bayou’s “other history of working with and in catastrophe,” in which the affirmation of the other’s life attaches to a fight for life that consumes, but also exceeds, the self. Here, the weak survive, and survival articulates itself as the preservation of collectivity against singularity.17 Skeetah’s devotion to China, which diminishes the distinction between human and animal throughout Bones until Esch knows China as “sister” in the novel’s closing lines, is one expression, perhaps, of the monstrous survival of which Spillers writes when she claims that “the black American male embodies the only American community of males which has had the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself” (“Mama’s” 80). If the “power of ‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within” names the queer force of survival that ties Esch to China to a brother who licks her like a cat to a brother who lazes with dogs under the house to a lover who flips “like a caught fish” in her hold, Bones situates the human-nonhuman relationship as the motor of radical collectivity on the Pit. We could read the novel, that is, as a decolonial philosophy of human being in line with theorists like Sylvia Wynter, who, as Zakiyyah Jackson points out, “utilized many of posthumanism’s critical concepts, including autopoiesis, artificial intelligence, and cybernetics, but more importantly […] interrogated the racialized and gendered relevance of these thematics, often transforming posthumanist concepts in the process” (673). In this case, that “Esch” is a truncated version of the word flesh returns us once again to Spillers, for whom flesh refers to the “seared, divided, ripped-apartness” of the captive’s body as well as to that which “carries the female and the male to the frontiers of survival” (“Mama’s” 67).
To survive, in Bones, is to keep safe: to take to the interior; to reconstitute collectivity; to “preserve the ontological totality granted by a metaphysical system that had never allowed for property in either the physical, philosophical, temporal, legal, social or psychic senses,” in Robinson’s words (168); to shield the memory of the mother within daily practices of hunting, fishing, fixing, and tending; and to protect the desire that burns within a fifteen-year-old girl who “fuck[s] everyone who comes to the pit” (204). That sex is both safety and sustenance in the novel is evidenced by Esch’s relationship with Manny, a lover represented as a blazing, godlike man. Light-skinned foil to Esch’s brown coming-of-age body, Manny is the “gold” (15), “the sun” (16), “the magnolia flower tossing in the wind” (202) who returns to Esch time and again for sex but insists on keeping the relationship a secret. Early in the novel Esch describes their encounter at the trash heap behind the manmade creek known as “the pit”: “Manny touched me first where he always touched me: my ass. He grabbed and pulled, and my shorts slid down. His fingers tugged my panties, his forearms rubbed my waist, and the brush of his skin burned like a tongue. He had never kissed me except like this, with his body, never his mouth. My underwear slid down my legs. He was peeling away my clothes like orange rind; he wanted the other me. The pulpy ripe heart” (16). The force that Esch exerts to draw Manny to her is an effect of her own desire. This is the desire that literally feeds her: later that night, as she lies in her bed, she thinks, “I only ate once today. I see Manny above me, his face licking mine, the heat of his sweat, our waists meeting,” her desire appeasing, at least for the night, her empty stomach (19).
Sex is Esch’s reflex (her name, “Esch,” could also easily be reconfigured to sound like “sex”), an intuitive and spontaneous reaction to external stressors unmoored from what Candice Jenkins calls “the salvific wish,” a response to characterizations of black familial pathology and an “intraracial gesture toward communal protection” that scapegoats black women as threats to bourgeois propriety (16). The novel scripts Esch’s sexual experience unsentimentally as one of her survival strategies. Esch likens her learning to have sex, for example, to the sink-or-swim exercise: “Daddy taught every one of us to swim by picking us up when we was little, around six or so, and flinging us in the water. I’d taken to it fast, hadn’t coughed up the muddy pit water, hadn’t cried or flailed […]. I’d pulled the water with my hands kicked it with my feet, let it push me forward. That was sex” (24). Sex is, throughout Bones, disarticulated from the family romance, as is reproduction. Sex, Esch explains, is easy, “like swimming through water,” in part because she finds it easier to acquiesce to lovers’ desires than not to (22). Manny, in contrast to her previous sexual partners, though, is her burning object of desire. Thus when Manny refuses the intimacy that Esch attempts to construct, she works her body to compel him. When he follows her into a public restroom at the school gymnasium where her brother plays in a summer league basketball game, Esch insists on being seen by Manny, perhaps in a Levinasian kind of face-to-face.18 “He will look at me,” she avers (145).
Manny is a callous lover who uses Esch for sexual gratification. More important, though, he embodies a philosophy of living that contradicts the Batistes’ ethic of collective preservation. When Manny pleads to Randall, “We like family,” after he and his cousin fight Skeetah at the basketball game, Randall responds: “Rico your family. I ain’t blood” (201). When Manny insists, “Like blood,” Randall answers, “That’s the problem. […] I’m the only one” (202). Refusing the individuation that Manny betrays when he asks Randall to connect with him brother-to-brother, Randall opts for an ethic of familial care that only loosely gestures to the Republican family ideal. Later, after the storm, when Esch sees Manny, she affirms, “Randall was my shield, my warm cover, my brother” (244). Similarly, when Esch holds Skeetah after the storm, comforting him because China has been carried away by the water, she embraces him and describes “the way I’d embraced those boys I’d fucked because it was easier to let them get what they wanted instead of denying them, instead of making them see me. My arms had never been so strong” (238). Holding Skeetah from behind, between her legs, Esch again turns sex to nourishment, giving herself over to Skeetah in an embodied enactment of mutual care and subsistence. Could we call this transubstantiation queer?
The ethic of survival that insists on communal care and a regard for human being as one vulnerable life form among many presents itself as both practical philosophy and epistemology in Bones. When Skeetah sends China into a dogfight with Kilo, who she has previously bred with, it is not to engage in some primitive, savage ritual, but rather to feed the Batiste community. Kilo’s owner wants his share of the litter, and Skeetah wants to raise the puppies for money to send Randall to basketball camp. The fighting words Skeetah whispers in China’s ears are a call to knowledge: “Leave them shaking, China, make them love you, China, make them need you, China, make them know even though they want to they can’t live without you, China. My China, he mumbles: make them know, make them know, make them know” (171). If the dogfight exemplifies the Pit ethic of survival or a Woodsian “blues epistemology,” it does so unsentimentally and unromantically. The survival of the weak and the persistence of the small, that is, don’t topple existing categories of power or situate the nonnormative subjects of the novel outside of or against those categories of power. Rather, simply, Skeetah insists, “We all fight. […] Everybody” (169). Skeetah’s repetition of the plea to China to “make them know” both calls into being an epistemology of surplus survival in the face of premature death and eroticizes the mode of knowing that corresponds to a communal affirmation of life that may, but may not necessarily, articulate itself as a will toward the other’s death. When Skeetah calls China off of Kilo, “She looks back at Skeetah as if to say, ‘I am coming, love, I am here’ ” (172). And when China thrashes Kilo to the sound of Skeetah’s “Make them know they can’t live without you,” she wins the fight. The youngest Batiste, Junior, “shakes a beat to Kilo’s keening, and it is a song” (176). The Batistes’ blues epistemology in this way complicates post-1945 epistemologies of black freedom.
The Batistes survive the storm by opening up to being in such a wild, savage way. As Esch, Randall, and Junior return to their home after the storm, they find Skeetah, who keeps an expansive fire burning while he watches and waits for the dog he has lost to the water. Here, in this “circle of light” and loss, Esch looks into the future, surmising that when China returns, Skeetah will “see her emerge into the circle of his fire,” with her gleaming white fur dirtied, but “alive, alive, alive” (258). On the Pit, the everyday labor of survival produces the subjects-in-community who listen at the horizon for a barking pit bull who might again induce a song of victory. Here, the novel’s imagination of endurance and lingering returns us to José Muñoz’s famous working of disidentification as queer survival, as “a survival strategy that works within and outside the dominant public sphere simultaneously” (5). The novel’s privileging of the iterations of survival within the norm (“alive, alive, alive”) rather than in opposition to it (“against … against … against”) illustrates how Esch’s sexual practice apprehends existence beyond rigid distinctions between power and oppression, pleasure and pain, normativity and nonnormativity.
Bones’s injunction to “make them know” disrupts the canonical knowledges of black freedom in the post-1945 world, depicting an avaricious young black female sexuality at the center of a radical ethic of black survival. The work within and athwart the norm, where black women both announce security and reformulate it, is the bodily labor of the imagination, what Kaplan refers to as “the quotidian labor to make life in excess of existing regimes of meaning,” the labor that “requires us to plumb the political possibilities and contingencies of cultural representation in the most unlikely of places” (“Negro” 276, my emphasis). Therefore, if we keep our eyes on the unlikely places where an alternative iteration of security shines in the eyes of a black woman—yes, in a fantasy of black power/Black Flower in the White House, yes, between the legs of a black girl under water circa 2005, yes, on the lace edges of a slip that a dreamer wears while dipping her world-weary toes—we might yet catch a glimpse of her gaining the insurgent ground on the edges of the normal or right in the middle of it, appearing in either case, at least in our wildest dreams, to have hot sex in the most unlikely of places on her mind. There, loosely clutching a secret, ears and eyes on the horizon, bathed in fire, she holds on and holds out after the black normal.
I would like to thank Robyn Wiegman, Elizabeth Wilson, and the contributors to this volume, as well as Zahid Chaudhary, Ashon Crawley, Carlos Decena, Nicole Fleetwood, Carla Freccero, Grace Hong, Sara Clarke Kaplan, Nick Mitchell, and Courtney Thorsson for their feedback and useful suggestions regarding this essay.
My thinking about the incorporation of minority difference into the various institutions of U.S. power and the implications of this incorporation for critical thought is very much indebted to Roderick Ferguson and Grace Kyungwon Hong’s edited book series, Difference Incorporated. I am persuaded, for example, by Ferguson’s own argument that we “need a critical itinerary that can […] assess power’s calculus as one that both estranges and entices” (Reorder 17).
I am using the term “freedom-to-secure” to signal the usability of narratives of black emancipation for the U.S. security regime.
I am persuaded by Jodi Melamed’s revision of Howard Winant’s theory of the racial break as the post–World War II rupture with white supremacy as the lingua franca of Western discourses of race. While for Winant the racial break was incomplete and resulted in the coexistence of two racial projects (white supremacy and official antiracism), for Melamed it is complete in that it has led to “a new worldwide racial project, a formally antiracist, liberal-capitalist modernity that revises, partners with, and exceeds the capacities of white supremacy without replacing or ending it” (6–7).
My understanding of neoliberalism as a structure of political economy and a structure of feeling that must be understood in the context of and in opposition to post–World War II social movements around the world is informed by the many important studies on the topic. See Duggan; Harvey; and Nunley.
On how black political thought has been shaped by Afro-Arab alliances and how American domestic and foreign policies have aimed to limit such alliances, see also Lubin.
That blackness functions as “the face of a U.S. empire in a state of permanent war with the Muslim Third World” while retaining its associations with criminality, pathology, and deviant sexuality is evident in the history of jokes and speculations about Rice’s love affair with George W. Bush and about her being a lesbian as much as it is betrayed by the August 2011 stories about the raid on Gaddafi’s compound (Daulatzai xiii).
In Hortense J. Spillers’s foundational reading of the mythologies of black womanhood in the “American grammar book,” she refers to the multiple names by which black women have come to be known as “an example of signifying property plus.” “I must strip down through layers of attenuated means,” she writes, “made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness” (“Mama’s” 65).
Recall also Spillers’s claim that black women’s sexuality is the interstice or “missing word” in feminist theory. See Spillers, “Interstices.”
See, for example, McBride, or the introduction to the special section of the Winter 2000 issue of Callaloo, “Plum Nelly: New Essays in Black Queer Studies,” in which Brody and McBride argue that black queer studies pioneered an important critique of the “kind of exclusion that black gays and lesbians meet in the black community when they attempt to occupy the role of ‘race man’ or ‘race woman’ ” (287) and that black queer studies must continue to enable a “critique of certain kinds of heteronormativity and hypermasculinity which too often preclude discussions of crucial differences within the ‘body’ of black subjects” (288).
Discussions of the usefulness of black feminism’s theoretical archive—particularly around the analytics of intersectionality and representation—often center, in fact, on the question of how feminist theory accounts or fails to account for black women’s pleasure and sexuality within an analytic schema attuned to the marginalization, oppression, consumption, and commodification of black women and black women’s culture. Nash, for example, shifts “the black feminist theoretical archive away from the enforcement of a ‘protectionist’ reading of representation, and toward an interpretive framework centered on complex and sometimes unnerving pleasures” (Black 3). See also Floyd; Lindsey; and Wiegman (esp. ch. 5).
I’m referring here, of course, to Henry Luce’s famous 1941 Time essay, “The American Century,” which encouraged Americans “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world.” I am also referring to conservative projects of the late twentieth century that followed up on Luce’s vision, such as the Project for the New American Century think tank.
I previously argued that the circulation of black leadership iconography in the 1990s and 2000s has obscured a history of radical organizing while domesticating the black freedom movement in the interest of the national narrative of American exceptionalism. See Edwards.
Building on Wynter’s theory of the demonic as that which, within mathematics and physics, is a “working system that cannot have a determined, or knowable, outcome,” McKittrick theorizes demonic grounds as that space of black femininity’s “historical spatial unrepresentability.” See McKittrick (xxiv–xv); and Wynter.
One of few Hurricane Katrina novels, Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award and was what Obama was reportedly reading as he headed into a second term, a term that he kicked off in his 2013 State of the Union Address by reassuring the nation that “the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self” and promised that “where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”
Woods’s penetrating analysis of Delta history draws an important connection between military action and the philosophy of Bourbonism that was deployed in the wake of the Civil War. “Classical Bourbonism,” he writes, “was founded upon several militarizations.” The “ruling bloc’s ‘starve the beast’ plan cut government expenditures to below antebellum levels” and led to blacks’ expulsion from homes, farms, workplaces, public spaces, and polls, while the 1890 Separate Car Law was the foundation for Plessy’s militarization of racial contact and public space throughout the nation (“Katrina’s” 436). The Jim Crow laws, convict leasing, and epidemics that decimated the black population during Reconstruction could thus be seen as results of Louisiana’s postbellum deployments of the military.
In referring to that which outlives current discourses of postblackness or post–civil rights black culture, Fred Moten insists, “It keeps happening like that, that other history of working with and in catastrophe; the parastrophic poetics of emergency is still good—not as destruction but as out inhabitation, total disorder as the carnival alternative” (243). If blackness— “still good”—names such an “other history,” we could call that a certain kind of survival, a kind of affirmation of life that refuses the pursuit of happiness guaranteed to the rights-bearing subject in civil society—refuses because, but not only because, it is not an option—and instead struggles for and through what Moten terms “being-in-collection” (239).