Abstract

This roundtable is a place-based conversation on Black anarchism, transfeminism, and transmisogynoir with edxi betts, NZ Suékama, and g, three Black trans femme activists, organizers, and independent scholars. Moving deftly between topics like Marxism, Afro-pessimism, and abolition, this roundtable outlines problems of co-optation within radical-movement work and critiques Eurocentric modes of knowledge production. Through organic relations built within organizing spaces, special issue editor Ren-yo Hwang reached out to edxi betts to be part of this featured roundtable, and edxi, in turn, contacted NZ Suékama, who connected us with her frequent interlocutor, g. Edxi first encountered NZ's intellectual writings online, in 2020, offering that “it was refreshing and affirming seeing another Black trans femme go through such similar issues of having to navigate liberal, statist, respectable, and even white anarchist politics.” Likewise, NZ recounts first meeting “both g and edxi on social media, connecting individually around theories of transmisogynoir as well as critiques of abuse in leftist organizations.” NZ and g describe themselves as “theoretical co-conspirators, both publishing our ideas with Red Voice,” an online publication. NZ, edxi, and g had an opportunity to review and edit their contributions, and this issue's guest editors sought to honor the flow of their conversation as much as possible by retaining its conversational syntax, which purposefully rejects traditional academic forms.

Personal as Political

Ren-yo: We're so excited to have you all here together in conversation on this issue on anti-imperialism, anarchy, and abolition. I'll just start us off with one really big open, expansive question: how have each of your political experiences shaped your intellectual commitments in the world and/or vice versa?

edxi: Hi, I'm edxi, pronouns she/her, they on occasion. I'm currently residing in so-called Los Angeles or Tongva Lands. I identify as Black, Indigenous, Blackfeet descended, and Filipina. I am also a trans woman multimedia artist with autism. Some of my first organizing experiences were going to protests. I didn't really start organizing until late 2011. When I was still in high school, my friends and I would attend these weird Lyndon Larouche libertarian rallies. We just thought it was kind of out-there. It was extremely conservative. They would demonize certain books. I didn't really have a political philosophy that I claimed. Being socialized in a male archetype, I didn't really fit into these particular socializations, and this caused quite a lot of trauma. Living a life of gender nonconformity would politicize anyone. I was searching for representations of gender nonconformity, and so when I would see them in the media I would fixate on drawing portraits of gender-nonconforming people. When social movements in the 2010s were happening with Occupy or Black Lives Matter, I was contributing artwork from these political perspectives. I was thrust into a lot of anarchist and antiauthoritarian-leaning perspectives through the Occupy movement, and I think there were just a lot more examples of decentralized popular initiatives, general assemblies, and direct actions, so me and my comrades broke away from the larger mainstream left movement because of its bent towards electoralism. Electoralism is the dead end of movements. We focused on mutual aid instead—from food programs to community art events, cop watch and court watch, to eviction response direct action, et cetera.

“The personal as being political” makes me think of the relationships that we have with each other and our relationships to systems of power. We have a critique of the kind of hierarchies that are thrust upon us by systems of domination, from schools, police, courtrooms, yet we internalize certain dynamics like intracommunal hierarchies. Harm then is both established and sustained by the state. My activism has been an investment in resisting pedestalization in “the movement.” Social hierarchies exist within even antiauthoritarian perspectives and are part of the cause of continued oppressions.

g: I'm g. My pronouns are she/her and they/them. My first experiences with political theory and activism were as a Marxist-Leninist. I ran into a similar problem in activist spaces with this trend towards electoralism. I kept finding myself in very similar spheres, making the same mistakes. Eventually I moved into more of a Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM) sphere because I grew more of an appreciation of the maxim of the whole “mass line” (Maoists’ pooling the wisdom of the masses). I eventually ended up taking more of a trajectory towards autonomism (autonomist Marxism). I slowly noticed how these political groups did not want to address certain systems of oppression, especially when it comes to anti-Blackness and queerphobia, and also vulgar anti-imperialism. I noticed that in a lot of anarchist spaces, the topic of anti-imperialism wasn't necessarily taken seriously. There was always this back and forth in terms of agreeing with anarchist criticisms of MLM, but also being influenced by Black anarchist criticisms of white anarchist spaces that don't take the issue of imperialism seriously. Kuwasi Balagoon was really influential for me in that aspect. Intersections like disability, particularly when it comes to saneism and misogynoir, those two things have been my focus. Whether it's Black feminism in the academy or more grassroots movements of Black radical queer theory, I'm always trying to navigate these contradictions that pop up in these spaces. That's how “the personal is the political” emerges for me.

NZ: I'm from the Bronx and grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up extremely poor: shelter system, foster care type shit, just a lot going on in my childhood. I can remember being made aware from a very young age how the prison system, policing, histories of racism, and slavery had made it so Black people would be more likely to be in the kind of economic situation that my family was in. As a kid, my parents played speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. I grew up in a historically Black church that was founded by someone who was an anti-segregation activist. There was a cultural awareness from Black Christianity that I had as a kid.

Even so, no matter how much people were critical of the way racism impacted our religious or economic experiences, I would hear people hold onto racial stereotypes as the reason to enforce gender binaries. Folks would tell me, as young as three, that I couldn't just live in my body the way that felt most natural to me. I didn't yet have words like nonbinary, transfeminine, queer, or whatever might have been my language then. For me, gender and sexuality weren't even at the forefront because I did not see the world through that lens. I just saw it all as “I am doing whatever feels comfortable.” If I want to be the girl characters from the TV shows, I'm going to be the girl characters. And if I want to be one of the boy characters, it doesn't matter. I was fluid like that.

But that freedom, fluidity, and that expansivity, I kept being told “oh, that's a white thing,” and that Black people have to act this way, that way, a rigid type thing, one or the other—boy or girl, male or female. I can remember being six years old and saying in my head, “okay, so this same history of slavery being behind why we're poor is also why people around me are not letting me be in my body the way I want to?” I had to become intimately aware of that from a young age, keep reminding myself of that over and over again in order to help myself cope with how alienated I felt by being policed in my body. I had to keep telling myself, “yo, it's not my parents, it's not my siblings, it's not my people. It's what we were taught under slavery.” This was my life raft, basically.

As I got older, I would always go back to that principle. Sometimes my brothers and peers would joke on me like, “oh, you be acting like you Huey from the Boondocks”—because he was always so politicized. But I didn't really come into a particular ideology or revolutionary consciousness until high school when the Black Lives Matter movement was underway. I remember in one of those theater programs where they come into schools in the hood and try to tell the kids that “you can use the arts to raise your voice,” they had the news playing, showing us what was going on in Ferguson. They wanted to encourage us to write something about it through the art.

Watching Michael Brown's friend Dorian Johnson crying out and not being heard, that just made me feel like I had to take Black struggle more seriously. I really pushed myself to learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement. By the time I graduated in high school and got into college to learn more about abolition, critical theories on race, gender, and sexuality, I ended up in a Black nationalist organization. I learned about the Panthers, started to organize—whether it was teach-ins or disaster relief campaigns in the wake of some of the hurricanes that hit the South in the mid- to late 2010s. But the same thing kept happening, even in this one organization, people would have an understanding of racism and its economic effects, but then when it came to gender, there was just this stopgap. I would do my best to try to wrestle with that contradiction. I had been reading Assata Shakur and Huey P. Newton, and Newton has a speech where he's addressing queerphobia and sexism in the Black Panther Party. I would cite this speech as an example of the Black Power era's understanding of intersectionality, and still I wasn't being heard. I was being disrespected and attacked by men in the organizations. The cis women in the organization would defend those cis men because they were in the streets with them in places like Ferguson or Baltimore.

They all have this idea of “Black unity at all costs.” “Brothas and sistas should stick together.” In my mind, I'm like, “unity at costs, but at whose expense?” No matter how much I would try to struggle around this, educate my comrades and myself on things related to gender diversity and African culture, how patriarchy throughout the world is tied to colonialism and capitalism, it wasn't going anywhere. They were nationalists, and a key tenet of “nation-building” philosophy is a strict sexual dualism. In the end I left Black nationalism and I was still organizing anyway.

One day I ended up at a protest in solidarity with Standing Rock and the No Dakota Access Pipeline struggle. This protest was my first time meeting anarchist people of color in person, especially Black anarchists. The majority of them were queer and trans. I said to myself, “Okay, maybe I need to look into Black anarchism as a way to address slavery, its history, capitalism, class domination, gender, and patriarchy all at the same time.” It turned out to be true and absolutely the case. It was not just practically being in inclusive spaces, but also theoretically going more in-depth about “intersections.” I was affirmed, and to be growing ideologically with Black anarchists meant I developed friendships and comradeships. I found a chosen family among Black anarchists, and it really contributed to my own revolutionary struggle as a Black anarchist. So for me, the personal is already political. It really is about a journey in my consciousness that has to do with how my body has been “nexed” in between these different forms of domination that shape assumptions about gender.1

edxi: There's so much pain that Black trans and queer people have to go through just to get some semblance of camaraderie or just be in a sense of belonging and family. I relate so much to your journey all the way going into anarchism. Even though I was surrounded by other like-minded people ideologically, I still was experiencing transmisogynoir. So many different collectives I've been part of, I've stepped away from, not necessarily even because they were outright transphobic or trans misogynist, but because of their lack of caring. With Black organizing in Los Angeles, I was involved with community organizing and I knew there were certain Black Panthers/Black revolutionaries whom I would help with editing documentaries that they've done in the past. These same revolutionaries would turn around and misgender me, saying, “we're down with edxi's anti-police violence perspective, but we're not down with the trans or queer stuff.” That's what led me into more Indigenous organizing, but then I experienced the same thing with colonized Indigenous perspectives. I went to Standing Rock and witnessed a lot of internalized patriarchy. The cis-men especially were dealing with issues of confronting patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia. Even though culturally they know they're not supposed to be this way . . . I just think that it's such a shame. It's such a waste because really the most down people have been Black, queer, two-spirit, and trans people. And so many times, because of people's lack of acknowledgment of their labor and their struggles to be in these spaces, they opt out of movements entirely . . .

g: One thing that stuck with me that NZ said was lacking the language to identify queerness and what makes you “different,” but understanding that you want to have the freedom to express yourself in particular ways. That very much resonates with me, especially in terms of the way that it interacts with, for example, autism. For a lot of autistic people like myself, rules around gender often don't make sense. Without specific language to identify what is happening, we'll notice when we're being treated as anomalies for that expression. We lack the language to necessarily communicate it. An underlying gatekeeping-ness happens when the discussion of this is denied. This ends up being a tool to maintain specific structures within organizations and spaces that supposedly exist to eliminate these hierarchies! For example, NZ talks about this a lot, minor patriarchy within colonized spaces and the way in which gender expansiveness is characterized as being something that's “white” or “a colonial import,” that ends up being a tool for certain groups to be able to exploit the labor—both emotional, theoretical, and physical—of people who are more marginalized, especially when it comes to queerness.

NZ: I was just thinking a lot about that trickiness of how we're showing up for ourselves and our own people in terms of this anti-colonial struggle, this Black struggle, this Indigenous struggle—and how in the midst of that, gender is being used to exploit us. Both of you were talking about “labor.” I've been in mutual aid distros where people are coming to the distros, getting masks and zines from us, then they're like, “oh, well God said this, that, and the third about how there's only male female or whatever, but I still rock with you in terms of the Black power shit.” How are you going to pick and choose? That was a very common conversation that had to keep happening over and over again in the 2010s. That's why people started saying, “All Black lives matter,” “Black trans lives matter,” “Black disabled lives matter.” It was very wild because I think about how that process, which g pointed out, is really about something called “minor style patriarchy.” That's a term from Sanyika Shakur (2013) in “The Pathology of Patriarchy” that specifies how patriarchy manifests in the context of colonized people's experiences, especially Black struggle.

Minor-style patriarchy doesn't always rely on the gender logics of the West—of what Sanyika Shakur calls “grand style patriarchy.” We end up wrestling with this minor style patriarchy that doesn't always rely on Western gender logic alone. That's why, for example, edxi, you were talking about a two-spirited approach to gender expansivity, or g you were talking about an autistic embodiment that doesn't even need to be called gender expansive because gender wasn't even being registered in the first place. I know for me as a kid, gender wasn't registering for my embodiment because my focus was on spirituality. Just as two-spirit and autistic ways relating to gender scripts don't necessarily rely on gender/sexual logics alone or the West's concept of “gender variance,” my focus was on the way I felt whenever I was in a meditative state or a trance state, connected to a lot of African traditions.

Malidoma Patrice Somé (1993) talks about this in “Gays: Guardians of the Gates.” He says that there are people who the West calls “gay” because of singling out certain feelings, but there's no reason to call them “gay” in his culture, the Dagara culture, because those feelings aren't singled out in their spirituality and turned into rules and boxes. I remember when I first read about that in the 2010s. I would try to talk about this in Black nationalist spaces and people would acknowledge it. Edxi, you were talking about Indigenous men knowing about two-spirited persons. People will acknowledge these so-called variant forms of embodiment, and yet insist on a patriarchal binary. One of the main reasons for this is the need to exploit labor. They know who is showing up, fighting, in the streets. They want to be able to steal those contributions and use it to build up their orgs, ranks, and their pursuits of “state power.” It's a slick form of “nation building” where they exclude us but still use us.

Trans Feminism/Trans Materialism

Ren-yo: I think this is an interesting segue. NZ, thank you all for sharing with such radical honesty about how you came into the work. In terms of the explicit “exploitation and stealing of labor,” this is an interesting segue into the topic of trans feminism and materialism. From some of our previous discussions, I know you all mentioned wanting to discuss a materialist analysis in Third World Black feminism and the problems of a Eurocentric Marxist framework.

g: When it comes to Marxism-Leninism, there's always this very interesting interplay with interpretations of Marxism in relation to materialism. Whether it's dialectical materialism or historical materialism. But when it comes to gender, I found that I continuously run into an issue that both Marx and Engels spoke about with regards to universalizing their theory. There's a letter that Engels (1890) wrote to J. Bloch where both he and Marx were at least partly to blame for “vulgar economic reductionism,” and he clarifies that the various elements of production and reproduction we delegate to the “superstructure” often are “preponderate in determining their form.” At one point Marx also spoke about historical materialism as intended for the study of the development of capitalism in specifically Western Europe. In his letter to the editor of the Otecestvenniye zapisky (Notes on the Fatherland), he clarifies that his work on primitive accumulation in volume 1 of Das Kapital meant only to “trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist order of economy emerged from the womb of the feudal order of economy” and then criticizes an attempt to “metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people” (Marx 1877).

In terms of class development, when it comes to specifically feminism, there's a lot of assumptions that try to universalize Euromodernity's conception of gender and transpose it infinitely into the past in an attempt to tie the development of class society in certain regions to patriarchy in a way that doesn't necessarily make any sense—for example, in Africa.

I suppose one of the things that's been difficult to untangle is this push and pull when it comes to radical feminism and all of its various branches in Marxist or socialist feminism. It doesn't necessarily matter which milieu you fall under, they usually rely on the same exact presumptions when it comes to the development of gender and patriarchy—the assumption that class development and historical “progress” have very specific and determinate stages. Because of that, they always have to ignore the world historical relevancy of, in particular, the transatlantic slave trade or the Indian ocean slave trade. I refer to this seemingly inescapable trapping of a worldview as the ouroboros of Western feminism, in contradistinction with the various—and I'm drawing from Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí (1997) here—“world senses” that belie such strict deterministic and universalist trajectories. Trans feminism definitely has to grapple specifically with anti-Blackness. Black materialist transfeminism has been the only thing that's been able to genuinely utilize materialism in a transfeminist fashion. More recent interventions such as Afro-pessimism at least make a serious attempt to grapple with this, even if deploying ontological reductionism, which is a serious issue.

NZ: My grandmother organized in the city in the wake of the Bronx-is-burning era and worked to turn an abandoned lot into a community park for my mother and neighbors. My mother, being a lover of science and the environment, taught us about the water cycle, different kinds of clouds and stuff . . . I talk about this all the time and I bring it up now because that love for the environment and science always followed me into revolutionary organizing, even today. I was trying to grapple with race, gender, and class simultaneously and not finding a place to deal with that “simultaneity of oppressions,” as the Combahee River Collective (1978) called it. I found myself caught between the Marxist-feminist view and then what g mentioned, ontological reductionist views.

Marxist-feminism was some of my earliest exposures to this idea of the exploitation of labor within the household configuration and being the basis for modernity as shaped by gender. That made a lot of sense for me. There are all of these spiritual and not necessarily class-based dynamics of gender, and of other forms of embodiment, especially in the Black struggle, that this approach couldn't encapsulate. I met people who were trying to deal with all those things, and some of them were queer and trans. I was reminded: how is ontology, the being of Blackness, excluded from these categories in the white mind or in the mind of the non-Black world? This reflection allowed me to research figures like Area Scatter, for example, a gender-nonconforming musician that channeled her own gender expansive embodiment.

Yet I still felt like something was missing from a scientific perspective, because we live in this world that likes to use science, or evolution of development in order to sideline trans experience, or any “variant” gender embodiment for that matter.

A former gay comrade of mine helped me to form a circle within the Black nationalist org we were in together. We had pulled some of the men together to try to work through questions around gender. This particular gay brother, he would talk about, “whoa, there is an evolutionary basis for what gets called queerness and transness.” Oftentimes those explanations revolved around this idea that queer and trans people evolved to fill in roles that “cis-het” parents didn't fill in. I would see parallel claims in evolutionary biology with theories such as gay male penguins taking care of the eggs of offspring when the natal parents neglect them or lose the eggs or die off. There's a very adaptationist view on who trans people are that tries to be scientific, as a sort of contradistinction to the way science used to be transphobic.

But if all we are is some kind of evolutionary adaptation, then if someone tries to argue that trans people are a “drain of resources” or that we are actually preventing “national development,” the adaptation argument can instantly be used against us. Suddenly we become maladaptive. Two sides of the same coin. It's a progressive versus a conservative argument, but both reinforce patriarchy. In Marxist, Marxist-Leninist, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist groups, and other kinds of socialist and decolonial groups, they will appeal to the idea of science and of evolution to explain class development and the evolution of society from one point in history to the next. They assume sexual dimorphism as this fact of biology and expression of a reproductive imperative. A few of them might try to be queer- and trans-inclusive by just shoehorning us into this idea of a “beneficial adaptation” to that same reproductive imperative. That same linear trajectory of evolution, like g was saying, of class society, and yet not realizing that there's an eschatology. Viewing time and the end of time, or the “end of history” built into this is very much Western, colonial, Eurocentric, and unites them with the thinking of liberal progressives and conservatives.

So for me, a materialist transfeminism is about grappling with, yes, the “identity politic.” It is in part a question of: how is my body positioned in society, and what are the multiple forms of embodiment that that can involve, whether it is gender or neurodivergence or spirituality or whatever it might be? At the same time, materialist transfeminism asks me to look beyond my body and to understand, okay, so what are the social forms that are “nexing” my embodied positions in society in this way? The hegemonic “nexus” is this Western binary gender system. Even if turning toward Indigenous metaphysics, for example, and ways of organizing and configuring the conditions of living and personhood, because there is a certain trajectory of “societal evolution” and “nation building,” especially within the state that capitalism forced onto us, we all eventually have to confront this binary gender nexus. A lot of these leftists are still holding to that binary gender nexus no matter what, even if they speak of “self-determination.” Our struggle becomes overdetermined by a reproductive sexual imperative and the labor divisions used to rationalize it. People will really start to shoehorn things that have nothing to do with gender, sex, or sexuality inside of that nexus, redefining Indigenous lifeways in the image of the so-called man. It's all part of this “imbrication” of dominant material and power relations. The mode of production and patterns of social reproduction are overlapping at a specific “nexing-form” that coerces and reduces our embodiment. That's not a constraint because of adaptation; it is because of particular evolutionary constructions.

It just creates this ouroboros, like g was saying, a feedback loop or endless spiral where we're just running around in circles that we can't escape from until we really transect these systems in full, at the level of their totality.

edxi: It feels like we're just trapped in these Euro-anthropocentric ideas of meeting, of science, that is, in accordance to white Western ways of knowing and being, which are inherently solipsistic . . . it only feeds itself. Some of the most exciting theories that I've come across have definitely been in tension with one another. I've been very hesitant to identify with anything because in practice and theory, I think, there's a lot of ideologies that don't pan out. I think I really fucked heavy with Afro-pessimism when I got it. It's a perspective that needs to be understood in regard to historical anti-Blackness that precedes nation-states and even the slave trade in the Atlantic.

I depart from Afro-pessimism, considering the lack of understanding regarding positionalities within, intramurally, and between Black people that relegate people with disabilities, undocumented folks, women-identifying people, into even more oppressed subaltern categories. Like, yes, we can all be Black, but there's still factors that need to be taken into account. Some people would call Afro-pessimism race reductionist. I've never called it that, only because of the need for anti-Blackness as a framing. For instance, master-slave relationalities encompass so much of our social relationships that we're still living in and under. My critique of Marxist-Leninist-Maoists on the other hand is . . . not only about white or European men's authorship over land, and working-class revolutionary erasure of people who fall outside of “universalized” political economy, that is, stateless people, Indigenous perspectives and persons et cetera. I've also seen how Marxist-Leninist-Maoists and other so-called communists practice their politics. I think leftists are really stuck on “work” and too damn stuck on mass politics. What the fuck do I give a fuck about mass politics when the masses right now want me dead??? In the realm of the US, the masses are statist, ableist, generally white, generally neurotypical.

Also, class is a fucking identity, you know, you can be a rich person one day and you can be a poor person within the following days. There's this perspective that class is immutable, and I think class it's a positionality that fluctuates through people's lives based on their lineage, where they come from, who they know . . . Look at other nation-states that might have implemented socialist or Marxist ideals. I'm interested in un-belonging with like-minded perspectives of anti-institutionality or what it means to be on the outskirts of institutional hegemony. Antiauthoritarian or anti-state ideas have never belonged within the confines of statist institutions, and so I have a hard time with coalition building because I've experienced and seen these contradictions. Sure, certain political ideologies are in tension with one another, but after years and years, I'm often the person shouting from the sidelines, “Hey, this is all great, but in three or four years, this isn't sustainable because there's too many people who want to co-opt state power and too many other people who want to abolish it.” Where do we meet?

NZ: Yeah, I'm an autonomist and an anarchist. I am antiauthoritarian, I'm anti-state, I'm anti-hierarchy, anti-institutionalization. But I come out of a Panther anarchist tradition, and I'm influenced by autonomous thinkers like Cedric Robinson and Sylvia Wynter. My way of approaching anti-political revolutionary practice and thought is very much in conversation with materialist analysis, dialectics, even though I don't jack Marxism and I'm not a Marxist. I mean Marx wasn't even a Marxist, and he said to himself that he was not one.

On the practical side, my experience has largely not been with the white left. It has largely not been with coalitions. The majority of my organizing experience has been in Black-only spaces. So there's a certain noxious encounter with these ideologies that I know a lot of people had when being in that coalitional sphere with white leftists and cis-het leftists. Because I went from Black nationalism into Black anarchism, my experience is very different. I'm used to making critiques of ontological reductionism; for example, it's different from the way white leftists would use the phrase “race reductionism.” Those are the folks who are trying to dismiss decolonization. They're trying to dismiss talking about anti-Blackness. Fuck that. Whereas in the context that I was politicized in, it's an in-house discussion about the ways that people might use race first (what the Panthers would call a “pork-chop nationalist”), or use ontology first as a way to conceal the various intramural antagonisms and shit that we have going on (an example would be an article by Da'Shaun Harrison (2021) called “Gendering Ungender”). It's that in-house discussion that really causes me to claim “materialist” whenever I'm talking about how I'm a transfeminist. I meet folks who call themselves transfeminist or speak of themselves as centering queer and trans theory in the Black and Indigenous struggles, and yet they turn to a conversation mostly on epistemology, semiotics, and ontology. This has opened up my consciousness in a way. There is buried knowledge about spiritual traditions that is enabled by this very culturalist approach.

When there are other dynamics at play, especially the ones that might have to do with labor or political economy, for me, I don't see the labor paradigm or political economy as universal at all. It's hegemonically forced on us, and that is why I intervene in those discourses by talking about “nexuses.” For example, the “Year of Return, Ghana 2019” (Year of Return 2019) has correlated with this growth in a touristic economy but throws local peoples under the bus. In the midst of all that, there's a spike in queerphobic repression under the state and increased vulnerability of local marginalized gender people to sex trafficking. I want to be able to track the aboveground and underground ties of those different mechanisms that coerce and exploit gendered labor to maintain social/cultural/religious domination. That's why materialism in my transfeminism becomes important.

When the conversation is about local knowledge, whether it's of the earth or of the body, especially spiritual traditions, I'm like, okay, bet. Let's actually have that conversation. Let's learn from that. Let's invigorate ourselves in our consciousness through that modality. It's this way of moving in and out of what Marxists call base and superstructure. For me, those things are not polarities, diametrically opposed. Modern and Western dichotomies are born in Cartesian dualism of mind/body, and this rationalizes the “imbrication” of state power and class relations. Certain ideals put at the top for the party leadership or political rulers, who are usually white, cis-het, and able-bodied (associated with the hegemonic nexus), while other people get relegated under their power and control. So for me, feeling like I must slip in and out of those two modalities, that is part of what it means for me to be anti-state because I understand Cartesian dualism as part of the Western rationale for the statecraft that was born after 1492. This Statecraft birthed this idea of “inalienable natural rights” and the notion of the modern nation via the framework of sovereignty. I get that there is tension in this interplay. I don't try to act like there is a way of creating this unified synthesis between the multiple conceptual frames that I might hold. That's why there are times where I'm like, “yes, I'm a third worldist.” “Yes, I'm a Black anarchist.” “Yes, I'm a transfeminist.” Really that just goes back to Audre Lorde's (1984: 138) saying “we don't live single issue lives.”

It's all way too varied for me to say that I can't learn from such and such ideology or not. Of course there are certain things that are just absolutely unprincipled that I will reject. I'm not an eclecticist or opportunist who just throws things together with no attention to their internal contradictions or their relationship to the broader struggle. I do try to take dialectics seriously, and it's why I reject Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, intercommunalism, and quite a few of these other-isms. I will never name my ideology after one person, ever. That don't make sense. Why am I giving that one individual that much power over me? I would never do that. That is undialectical. It isn't a “universality that accounts for all the particulars,” as Aimé Cesaire (1957: 6) once alluded to. To me, this “great man theory” of history has the breadwinner-homemaker model as its foundation. Even if people aren't aware of it. This is steeped in modern Western ways of knowing, but for me it's also a question of how the dialectic is being impinged on or truncated. I think that there are dangerous implications that come with the people who devoutly hold narrow ideological dogmas of “oh, I'm a Trotskyist . . . I am a . . . -ist.” Whatever it might be called, when they're named after one single individual . . . I can't do that. The allure of state power, the maintenance of hierarchy and authority, that's really why a lot of them name the shit after themselves or some narrow aspect of the human experience. But for me, I try to go outside of that, and doing so, it's a material as well as metaphysical problem. That's part of how I understand what it means to be a Black anarchist, to be a Black autonomist, or a Black anarchist radical.

Marxism, Anti-Blackness, and Afro-Pessimism

g: Yeah, there's been a lot that's been said that's been very interesting that I sort of want to touch on. Personally, when someone asks me what my political tendency is, I usually encapsulate it as a Marxist BAR. And I totally understand the sentiment of not wanting to give a name of one's tendency or theoretical milieu to a specific person. In these instances, I think back to a famous quote of Marx saying that he's not a Marxist. And while there is broader context behind that, the frustration that his contemporaries were trying to attribute and consolidate various sociopolitical and philosophical theories centered around him and the ways in which they were often misinterpreting what he was saying and trying to universalize them is something that I very much understand. It extends even further to Marxism-Leninism because Lenin didn't synthesize Marxist Leninism. Even continuing forward with the synthesis of M-L-M, which, in its formal existence, didn't come from Mao. A lot of Marxists, especially when it comes to gender and trans theory, are not actually appealing to materialism. They're appealing to what is more properly known as vulgar empiricism. For them, they think that materialism means you're studying something physical that you can touch and directly observe, either with your own eyes or measure with instruments, but that's not what that means. A very classical and foundational example in Marxism is that capital is not merely a thing, that is, a decontextualized and independent object. Capital is a social relation.

So when a lot of transphobic Marxists, for example, say there's only two sexes: biology is “real,” et cetera, it's actually extremely ironic because they're not appealing to a Marxism that invokes materialism. What ends up being important to me, especially since I do have a formal educational background in biology, is interrogating the axioms that we take for granted. So for example, the so-called father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, came up with modern biological taxonomy to essentially ground race scientifically. He did that through an appeal to something that predominantly is sourced from Aristotle called the “great chain of being,” which is basically a hierarchical ordering of nature itself. In this framing, Black people sit at the very bottom. As NZ mentioned earlier, some people in the movement will try to appeal to science to argue that being gay is okay because it's scientifically natural. However, it would be in our interests to examine the underlying assumptions that sustain this specific appeal. My concern when it comes to biology is that when we talk about “science” in terms of taxonomy and comparing the “human” to nonhuman animals, we have to eventually grapple with animalization itself.

And one really good source to look to is Zakiyyah Iman Jackson's (2020) Becoming Human, where she talks about how animalization is interminably bound up in racialization, specifically anti-Blackness. This extends to the extensive discussion within Marxist critique about metaphysics versus materialism. One thing that I've heard verbatim from Marxist feminists is that “biology isn't metaphysics,” which is funny to me because biology relies on metaphysics in order to distinguish itself from physics and chemistry. Simply put, the prerequisite for biology as a modern scientific field of study is the establishment of an “individual subject” which can, in the first place, be subjected to an ontological status. In turn, this can clarify the particular biological concept being studied, developed, and questioned. This gets me thinking about, for example, Afro-pessimism and why there is a legitimate need and concern rooted in anti-Blackness. But I do agree that Afro-pessimism doesn't sufficiently explore the variety and the lived experience of Blackness.

NZ: I'm not against Afro-pessimism (AP). You jokingly said you were throwing me under the bus earlier, L-O-L. I am critical of AP, and that's not ’cause I don't agree that anti-Blackness exists. It's just when I encountered Afro-pessimism, it was around when I was just getting into Black anarchism and wrestling with a bunch of different questions. This is why I had arrived at the place where I was like, my issue with AP is ontological reduction—that there's a whole complex reality, and then one facet of that reality, the ontology, is taken as primary or defining, a priori to everything else. And to me, that's just an inversion of what bourgeois scientists do with biology, or an inversion of what Leninists do with so-called class. Inversion is not subversion. You just flipped it. Yet even reduction has its uses, like in the sciences, I'm not antireduction as a whole.

Cartesian reduction, for example, can be useful for making sense of certain minutiae in bare physical reality. This is something I read about in The Dialectical Biologist by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin (1987). When it comes to higher-level, more-complex realities, that's when reduction has no use. And that's really how I feel about Afro-pessimism. It works where it works. I think we should talk about how anti-Blackness predates nation-states. As you were saying earlier, I think that we should talk about anti-Blackness predating capitalist modernity. It's actually really absurd when Marxists try to say that class invented race when there are things like the Hamitic hypothesis within the Abrahamic faiths such that by the early medieval period we start to see elements of anti-Blackness across the three major Abrahamic religions. And not just in the faith systems or stories, but as rationalizations of different kinds of enslavement. That was happening. So with class reductionism, they're taking class, a particular class system, a modern system, and they're making that primary before everything else.

I'm like, no, that's wrong. You're literally lying on history. How can you say that you're a “historical materialist”? Then there's historical facts going against what you said, and you're not changing what you said to match the facts?! Like, what? Something is off. So I'm like, no, we need to look at anti-Blackness. Especially because with the Hamitic hypothesis, this idea of Black skin as the evidence of a “curse of Ham” or a “curse of Cain” or curse for slavery, was informed by this idea that so-called pagan or heathen people, people who didn't have “revealed religions,” would be more likely to be given over to animalistic lusts. And that emphasis on animalistic lusts has a lot of sexual undertones that inform what would then become anti-Blackness in these religious systems as a rationale for enslavement. So then we get to modernity, and now we got all these other things added into the mix with modern race, biological shit, and Linnaean taxonomy, whatever. It took centuries of feudal religious land conflicts (especially in the Holy Land and the Iberian Peninsula) to even get to that point!

Those older ideas have taken on a new life by now, though, where there's this very extreme hypersexualization of Black people's bodies that put all these limitations on how we can negotiate our embodiment as Black people. It makes sense why there are people using an anti-Blackness thesis, an Afro-pessimist analysis to be like, yo, ontology is obviously very important to how we got to move through the world as Black people. I agree with that. My issue is like, okay, ontology or the philosophy of being is part of a larger context. But they have isolated that question as if it stands outside a totality. ’Cause I'm like, no, that's the same exact theoretical flaw that the class reductionists are running into. That's when it becomes limiting. The class reductionists took the labor exploitation paradigm and isolated that variable and projected it back in time, and now everyone interprets gendered “social being” only with reference to the historical trajectory that led to today's modern set of relegated labor. So you get this flat view of history that doesn't account for the particular “nexing forms” upon which the “gendered division of labor” is imbricated. They are not thinking about Euro-Christianity, Greco-Roman society, the Abrahamic faiths, and feudalism in particular parts of the world. They can't fathom the configuration of “gendered social being” outside those parameters in other cultures, regions, and struggles. They cannot make sense of things like the “coloniality of gender” as Maria Lugones (2007) called it.

And so yeah, it's like I'm not against AP. I just think that AP and the Marxist-Leninists, they are actually all falling into the same kind of problem, honestly, of reduction. And that reductionism is born in statecraft. Like, modern reductionism is a facet of rationalizing statecraft, even among people who are not trying to reclaim the state. A lot of folks want to establish direct democracies and decentralized organizational patterns. And in those contexts, they end up functioning like states. They end up subsisting on so-called informal hierarchies. They even end up developing cultlike dynamics. These are all institutionalizing measures that I consider statecraft too. So I'm trying to anticipate the multiple ways that statecraft can creep up, especially because of the ways that Black trans women will be underserved. And I've seen too many Black trans women underserved in spaces that overemphasize ontology or that overemphasized class. This is true of anarchist spaces too! The ones holding on to Western “body-reasoning,” as Oyěwùmí (1997) called it, the ones who ground their understanding of mutual aid in and sociogenic view of human nature or evolution. I'm getting real theory heavy here, I know, but it's very much an immediate thing for me.

I've been one of those Black trans women. I have witnessed—I've talked about it in earlier writings—this idea of being turned into the so-called info mammy, right? This beacon of subversive information, this way that people kind of make Marsha P. Johnson into an MLK figure almost, really flattening her, reducing her. And then that's the standard all Black trans women are held to. And some people will even make appeals to metaphysics, to ontology like, oh, in Indigenous societies, “trans femmes were spiritual leaders.” And these sorts of things. It's like, yes, that's true, in certain cultures, but then if that's the only way that my embodiment or if that's the primary way that my embodiment as a transfemme is being nexed in these social spaces, I can't help but to anticipate some type of exploitation and some type of coercion being forced onto me, because reductionism is all about concealing how hierarchies and labor divisions imbricate. I've seen and heard about this happening to the gurlz too many times. Whether it's the femme queen, the muxe, the hijra, the ‘yan daudu, the māhū, the children in general find ourselves only ever validated or invalidated within these discourses of spirit or of labor. It is often used to repress our autonomy and gender self-determination. And so at that point, I have to be like, yeah, I'm all for spirituality, metaphysics, ontology, because the class reductionists are clearly wrong. I think we need a more robust analysis. To me, when I'm thinking of Black transfeminism in this materialist fashion, that's really what it's about. It's about trying to have a robust analysis, ’cause I don't want to be subjected to statecraft. I don't. I don't.

edxi: I don't agree that the idea that decentralized organizing outside of the state can be seen as statecraft. There are historical examples of decentralized self-organizations outside of the realm of whiteness and European-Eurocentric ways of knowing and being the world over. Another thing about Afro-pessimism that I think has been useful has always been the acknowledgment that the civilized world that we're living in is inherently anti-Black. We have to unhinge the facilities and structures that edify civilized societies, but Afro-pessimists in academia haven't actually named an actionable way this would take place. How do you get there? How do we get to this so-called unhinging of civil society? I don't know if the theory is purposefully being vague and abstract, but I think so much of “knowledge production” and learning has been centered around the written word exclusively. I think my rejection of so much of Marxism and the canon of Eurocentric ideals is because so many of our ancestors come instead from oral traditions. There are perspectives outside of the hegemony and domination of cultures and societies that aren't structured by written law-and-order doctrine.

I'm not saying to completely disregard the written word. I'm saying that the written word is the reason why we are living in a colonial dystopia. This authorship over land and bodies, central authority is literally authoring, writing, transmuting law and order into the material world we're living in. That is the framework that we're actually trapped in. I think my rejection of it comes from this sense of knowing how so many people might look down on others or feel like they don't have much to contribute if they don't have this kind of analysis—a Marxist framework (what I call Marx washing), or this materialist framework or even any specific kind of “know-how.” I didn't go to college, I dropped out of high school, I was houseless for a good amount of my organizing life. I feel like my “lack” of education or desire to opt into traditional schooling speaks to how I feel—you shouldn't need a roadmap to get free! I don't agree with this urgency to read the “right shit.” It makes me a little uneasy because it does trigger these feelings around “lacking knowledge” around a lot of words that I or others don't understand. And yet people are still telling me that I'm consistently being inaccessible with my language . . .

With that in mind, there's been so many times where I'll have arguments with some of these Leninists or MLMs online or whatever, and then they'll DM me and be like, “look, I get what you're saying, but have you read The State and Revolution?” And I'm like, yes, but are you going to see any perspectives outside of that? Are you going to read beyond perspectives and theories you assume are correct? How are we going to get out of these social relationships that we're so trapped in when we're not transforming our social relationships into ones that don't rely on money? What are we doing to meet each other's needs in a way that isn't still commodifying the land, propagating settler-worker run polluting industries on said stolen lands, and facilitating all our relationships by way of dead white slave owners on pieces of paper?

Another part of Afro-pessimism which I agreed with are the critiques of liberal humanization in relation to animalization and proprietary sentiments that come out of the notion of humanhood and modernity. If we're looking at what we need, as of right now, to get out of the trappings of the ruling class and bourgeoisie, there needs to be a dialogue around our needs beyond only disaster situations (disaster capitalism). I think we've all seen how with disaster and crises it is autonomous folks, outside of the state, that are the first to respond.

I refuse to engage with the consistent badgering from a lot of leftists to “read the right readings.” Why can't we give credit to the Marsha P. Johnsons, to the enslaved ancestors who didn't have these readings, who couldn't read, in order to give them credit where it's due? I'm all about knowledge gathering, but I think in a lot of ways there's a certain perspective that facilitates the continual binary of civilized to primitive society. So fuck Marx. Also, I'm not going to name myself or -ism off of some dead white man/individual who would talk down to Indigenous peoples . . . and fuck the other homie Kropotkin too. They were studying/co-opting Indigenous people's relations and perspectives of these lands that we're on. Some of my ancestors and relatives were being studied to create a Westernized fucking “utopia.” Of course we probably had our issues. Am I really going to give lip service and center so much of their perspective that was in the end used to create and continue the facilitation of a genocidal industrial society? And working?

Are we really fighting to “work more”? I'm just not here for it. I'm just not. I will never be, and I 100 percent will always have comrades and family that are going to disagree. We all have different perspectives. Certain people's perspectives have been very helpful, but I think it isn't the only knowledge that is out there.

Black Anarchism and Black Trans Radicalism

NZ: Black anarchism has largely been developed through oral culture or orature. And whether that's Martin Sostre's conversational relationship with Lorenzo Ervin when they were behind bars, or even in my encounter with anarchist people of color and Panther anarchists, it wasn't all and has not been, and still is not all reading or focused on the written word. A lot of it has been conversation based. A lot of it has been transmitting experiential knowledge from being on the ground, being there when 2020 happened and the whole world was practically on fire.

The written word shows up because of a fluidity that is key to being anti-authoritarian. When I was saying earlier that I feel like decentralization can be a form of statecraft, a lot of anarchists appeal to the idea of democracy or direct democracy—government or governing by and for the people. The hegemonic model for that is a statist model, even in direct democracy. Those who were qualified in Athens were cis-males who owned land and were part of the accepted ethnic group. There is a clear case of gendered nexing that has imbricated how the class character of direct democracy emerged. Nowadays, a lot of anarchist spaces are white, cis-male centered. They will always want to center Kropotkin, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, they center themselves, and not only that, but their frameworks for so-called direct democracy, anarchy, autonomy, are often ideologically wedded to Western thought and reliant on gendered labor divisions. There was a split in Black Rose/Rosa Negra2 in the last few years because of divergence around woman-of-color feminisms. A lot of anarchist formations keep being hostile to “identity politics” and intersectionality as a concept. Theories of interlocking domination, attention to how parts and wholes are dialectically interpenetrated at the nexing of embodiments, doesn't seem to be of interest. Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin (2016) had to call it the “progressive plantation.”

So we say, fuck them. We look inward. We could look at East African examples of, I think it's called the Gadaa practice. Or I know “gadugi” in Cherokee is a form of collective ownership with council-based approaches to decision-making. We have examples like this in the Igbo context. My ancestors were Igbo. This Igbo phrase of “have[ing] no kings.” I look in these contexts. I look to Odinala for traditional wisdom. Four Igbo gender-expansive individuals come to mind, Eze Agba, the priest of Idemili; Eze Ahebi Ugbabe; Nne Uko Uma Awa, Area Scatter: who negotiated the spiritual and lineal nexings of their embodiment in different ways. I look to their memory for guidance.

And I'm guided by dreams like Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner were. Between libations, divining, ceremony, my comrades and I turn to spirit in our anarchism/autonomism. There's still concrete questions that always come up for me when we're building the day-to-day the context of reclaiming land, defending forests, for example, with what's happening in Atlanta with Cop City. No matter what, there are still forces that we're going to have to confront, so my question always ends up going back to, well, how do we do that? I think that theory and praxis is important. I need the praxis and I need the theory. I don't have a preferential option for one over the other because I'm not yielding to the dichotomy between the two that I recognize as created by bourgeois Western statecraft. I think about how in anti-colonial struggles so many African liberation movements invented original writing systems. A lot of times these original writing systems came from spirit, dreams, ritual practices, or they were redesigned versions of Indigenous writing systems that had existed, like Nsibidi among the Igbo for example.

I see that as useful. Everybody can't have access to everything. Gatekeeping is important in our Indigenous traditions and sometimes you need something that people can't read or parse out who might be an enemy in certain respects.

I remember there's a quote from Ashanti Alston (2003) and he's like, I think of Blackness, not so much as only an ethnic category, but an “oppositional touchstone” for looking at things differently, so that when I'm stuck, I can adjust to figure out how I need to basically move to get to that next point. Given the fact that the Black community is not homogenous, he defines Black anarchism knowing the Black community has a lot of these different interests and positionalities. Like you were saying earlier about us, not everybody Black is working class. Not everybody can even be said to necessarily be part of one class per se. I'm thinking of my own experience. I've slipped in and out of being so-called precarious and so-called proletariat so many different times depending on what point in my life I'm in.

It's precisely because of that why when I'm thinking about transfeminism, I'm like, there's knowledge to critique these things. Whether it is knowledge based in spirituality or it's in revolutionary sciences that I have under my belt now because of the movement, not the academy, because I ain't finish school either. Because of the movement, because of my comrades, I want other people to be able to have that knowledge too.

I know that's what I needed when I was a little kid and I was being told that my transness was white, that my gender variance was white. I wish I would've had that knowledge way back then. That would've helped me so much get through the pain. I wasn't able to learn none of the shit until when I was in high school and the Black Lives Matter movement happened. That moment allowed this knowledge to get moved onto social media and people's consciousness and daily conversations. On free PDFs that people were liberating from the academy, I'm thankful for that. I want to spread that around because I know that they're attacking that collective knowledge right now. They are trying to keep that knowledge off social media, the way that algorithms have changed, the types of toxicity that have popped up with these podcasters and influencers and blue check negroes. And then in the schools, they're trying to stamp it out. They're not even trying to allow people to express themselves in their clothing on the street without criminalizing it.

The knowledge is being ripped away from us right before our eyes. We only had within a decade, not even a whole decade, for that shit to get spread. I'm going to do my best to keep spreading it then because I know there's probably some other three-, or four-, or five-, or twelve-, or eighteen-year-old who was in the shoes that I was in. They probably are an organizer, probably how I was when I was a young organizer, dealing with the toxicity I was dealing with in that Black nationalist org and trying to fight with the praxis, praxis, praxis. But then there is the “theoretical blockages” that are making praxis exhausting, pushing them out of the struggle. I just feel like the knowledge is what helped me. I want to be able to help other people have that so even if they don't stay where they are, they can step back and create their own informed communities and build with other people who are also informed because this shit is so precarious.

And I think that that's completely commensurate with autonomy outside the state!

g: With regards to the demonization of oral tradition in favor of the written word, it's definitely an inherent form of gatekeeping, especially since a lot of the more in-depth written analysis is unfortunately constrained by and comes out of the academy. That has disastrous effects for people who don't have the opportunities to actually be in and a part of those spaces. So what we usually find is that when it comes to transfeminism, Black trans women are written about, but the academy definitely doesn't want us being there and writing about ourselves. There's also going to be a lot of theoretical gaps because when it comes to the study of Black trans women in particular, we do have a history, but a lot of that is traced orally. Unfortunately, in instances of archived Black transfem-existence in the written word, it's usually the case where documentation about us comes from our interaction with oppressive systems, institutions, like the state. So for example, Mary Jones, the Black trans woman in the early 1830s who was arrested for her gender transgression and existence as a Black trans sex worker, said that while she typically presented “male” in public (particularly around white people) she had always dressed as a woman among other Black people.

We wouldn't know things like that if it weren't for the fact that they were documented because of her interaction with the state and experience of being arrested and humiliated by its various extensions including the police, the courts, et cetera. That unfortunate legacy of written narratives about black trans women being largely restricted within those specific contexts, it inherently alienates and divorces us from our historical lived experience. It's just that violent situation . . . it's really difficult to articulate how much has been lost. I do feel that we do have options, for example, creating languages like NZ said. Saidiya Hartman's “critical fabulations” combine fiction and the archival together, but that also has to be situated around our material needs and connections because Mary Jones was a sex worker trying to get her material needs met. We have to try to get material needs met outside of the purview of the state, outside of institutions that exist in proximity with the state et cetera, so that we don't rely on such state narratives and records about who we “are.”

NZ: I'm thinking about being a New Yorker. I think a lot about Mary Jones's story because they laughed at her in the court and they also was calling her all these really disrespectful names. But then they were also suggesting that her gender variance wasn't real, that it was a way for her to rob unsuspecting white upper-class clients of hers on the streets of New York. So they would make it seem like she only dresses up as a woman at nighttime, but not in the day.

To be in New York City, born and raised, I know that this type of history is there. I had formed an organization called SQuAD that was an autonomous defense group for trans Black people, centering trans women and trans femmes, especially those who are either houseless or housing insecure. Through mutual aid, open mic nights and artistic spaces, spirituality—really inspired by Marsha and Sylvia's practice with STAR—because those were a lot of the things that they were doing too. We were building up support of housing struggles, especially because that's the major contradiction on the ground in New York City.

I wanted to have a circle around me to make me feel safe and protected as a Black trans woman to be able to show that for other girls out here. I feel like for me, part of that means I'm going to have to write myself into the canon. I'm going to make sure that my own words are heard on my terms so that people won't only receive me through how unfortunately we have had to receive Mary Jones.

I don't want it to be that. I had to dig to find recordings of Marsha and Sylvia speaking, to find recordings of interviews that they were in. There's all these ways that we, as trans women, Black trans women, get silenced. It's not just by the state, it's by nonstate forces too, which is why I speak of a lot of nonstate forces as forms of statecraft. Because if you're reinforcing things that the state is already doing, to me that is statecraft. If you have informal hierarchies in a supposedly anarchist formation that's led and run by only Black, dark-skinned trans people that yet I, a Black trans femme in the org, am carrying most of the labor. To me that's statecraft.

I get emotional when I think back to that happening, especially in 2020, when the world felt like it was falling apart. That was such a chaotic, disastrous moment. There was a lot of beauty in terms of people coming together and doing mutual aid. I loved seeing people masking at protests. It's kind of surprising how people gave up on masking after the 2020 uprisings was over. I saw most people masking, giving out masks and hand sanitizer. There were all these amazing forms of resistance. But then accompanying that was this fucked-up underbelly, at least for me. I felt like I was put in a position where it was like, yo, I've been organizing nonstop for six, seven years, let me fall back and focus on my writing a little bit more, shift the discourse and theory to another horizon. We've been relying on a lot of the same ideas for decades at this point, but new realities keep confronting us. I don't think anyone could have anticipated us having a COVID epidemic/pandemic. And I don't think anyone could have anticipated the ways societies responded. That brought up all types of new questions for me about praxis. How do you organize in the midst of a mass disabling event?

I'm sure there are other people thinking about that too. Let's go back to the ideological drawing board. Let's see how we got to where we are and what might we need to do new, to shift slightly to get to that next point? We've gotten stuck, both in the realm of ideas and praxis. I've seen a lot of things get stuck. That's not to say there aren't subversions—shout-out to the Zapatistas for still going strong for three decades now at this point. You know what I'm saying? There has always been autonomous segments of the Haitian revolution that didn't want the state. There were autonomous forms of marronage.

There's autonomy every time Black people would rebel against the cops. People would be forming autonomous zones, distributing shit. I remember in 2020 hearing the kids on the street talking about that. And then also it was the girls. We really do be getting written out of shit and erased out of shit. And I'm tired of that. I want to be able to pass down an autobiography someday that does for some Black trans girl twenty years from now what Assata's or Malcolm X's autobiography did for me. I want to be able to do that. That's part of oral culture to me, the passing down of this knowledge of a Black radical tradition or even a Black trans radicalism. That's really what I like to call it, a Black trans radicalism.

On Co-optation

Ren-yo: For the time remaining, perhaps we can shift to one of the questions raised when collectively forming the agenda for today's roundtable—the big “C” question of co-optation! Co-optation of what? Or how does the political rhetoric of solidarity expand colonial powers at large?

Edxi: I have so much to say about co-optation. I'm going to try to keep it as concise as I can. In my experience of Marxist-Leninist perspective in contrast to prefigurative politics . . . I think I've had an analysis of these ideological tensions for a long time and studied some of the histories between, in the European context, so-called libertarian socialists and so-called authoritarian socialists. Seeing those splits within the First International and seeing on-the-ground splits between so-called anarchists/antiauthoritarians and the more authoritarian leftist communists/socialists, I feel like when we're talking about what the state has done in terms of co-optation or misappropriation of certain rhetorics or practices, for example the co-optation of social movements’ street medicking to create emergency medical services, we're seeing that these kind of on-the-ground practices of serving people's needs have been co-opted by the state—institutionalized to serve the needs of a qualified few, while expanding state power. Another example is “cop watch” being co-opted by the state with police body cameras. You have the Black Panthers breakfast programs within their spaces providing all these resources for Black children in Black communities, then the state comes and co-opts that and decides, oh, we want to have the same kind of breakfast programs in our colonial schools as well. I don't really see this as progress because it still ensures our reliance upon these institutions that are inherently and ancestrally oppressive. For us to give our autonomy away to these institutions seems reactionary.

When we're talking about our relationships to the state and statecraft, the people who are arguing for the seizing of state power by way of elections or even political coups, that kind of practice is co-optive. A lot of my criticisms of MLMs or authoritarian leftists is that their entire practice is co-optation of colonial power. It's co-opting autonomous practices and utilizing that towards state reform. In lieu of wanting to find ways to actually abolish and disrupt it, by them opting into it, they often end up stabilizing and internalizing said hierarchies of statist and capitalist logics. I've witnessed here in so-called Los Angeles in the Brown/Indigenous hood organizing that was happening out in Boyle Heights, there was a huge emphasis on people trying to organize against gentrification. A lot of my work has been antigentrification work related to city development and overpolicing. I had an analysis and knowledge of the histories between certain authoritarian leftists’ wielding and taking state power and then saying certain autonomous self-organizing perspectives were “counter revolutionary,” when there's history of authoritarians literally throwing anarchists under the bus, putting them in death camps because they interfered with logics of a revolutionary communist state. I think my hesitation was to not participate and collaborate with leftist statists but unfortunately other comrades that I have known who were more anarchist leaning didn't have the knowledge of these historical political tensions. Despite some of us predicting fallout.

There was a women's autonomous collective that was doing really amazing work. They were called the OVAs, originally the “Ovarian Psycos,” but later changed their name because of critiques of biological essentialism. They were doing mad work in their hoods and supporting people. Real grassroots mutual aid. They were fighting gentrification at the same time. And collaborating with more authoritarian leftist groups who, like I said, had this kind of co-optative practice, after collaborating with them for a few years, they created the Defend Boyle Heights (DBH) coalition. The Marxist-Leninist-Maoist leaning people in the coalition started throwing their hammer and sickle on pretty much every single thing, every single flier/event that was happening. It started to effectively erase the kind of more anarchist leaning participation in the coalition. These women had actually established antigentrification and mutual aid practices and real relationships within the neighborhoods that they're coming from directly . . . The more co-optative side of this coalition eventually ousted and expelled these women from the coalition. It's not like those of us from the outside looking in could be like, well, we told you so. I think it is really important to study history and how these things will often fall apart, especially if your perspective is not relying at all on institutional power or coercive state power. I think this is where I see co-optation as a practice lending itself to state power/hierarchical organizing. For me, it's something that I think we should be sharing amongst each other even more so than we actually have. So after this co-optation happened, there was actually a strategy to try to demonize and bad-jacket/snitch-jacket these women.

The coalition was going around to almost every major organization in LA trying to get groups to denounce these women and calling “more anarchistic/antiauthoritarian perspective counter-revolutionary” to the point where I was doing an In Case of Arrest workshop at the OVA's autonomous community space, but tensions at the time had gotten so bad that some of these Defend Boyle Heights leftists came in with red hammer and sickle masks, and they were trying to disrupt the workshop that I was doing with my comrade. When they tried to bum rush into the space and there were people that held the line so they wouldn't enter, one of their people on their side decided to spray us all with pepper spray. There were children present, coughing, traumatized, and when DBH ran away we didn't call the cops because it's not what we do.

The fact that they did that, by way of hearsay and rumors without any discussion with people they used to work and organize with was like, wow. They obviously haven't read up on histories of COINTELPRO. That's the kind of thing that led me to understand that maybe this idea of leftist cults and irredeemable historical tensions is real and sensitive because no one there had anything to do with the original beef or initial issue. There were children there! Some people who have never been pepper sprayed who have been doing organizing and fighting cops on the street for years were like, “I've never been pepper sprayed and I was pepper sprayed by a masked fucking Marxist?!” So after that, there was a quick spreading of information amongst anarchist people throughout Turtle Island. There was an assembly at an anarchist action camp where people had shared, learned, and charted that actually this was a coordinated effort in a lot of different regions and states targeting people organizing autonomously. You have the MLMs, forming front groups or rebranding, like the United Neighborhood Defense Movement, from these same authoritarian abusive national orgs. Who come in, claim they're going to lend help, but then they take over and attempt to expel the people who initially started everything. This is why co-optation is important to discuss because this is a widespread and historical pattern, tactic, and strategy of authoritarian leftists, cults, and colonizers. It's sharing our warnings and information. I don't mean to be binary regarding which side/strategy you are going to take, but is it a co-optative strategy? Or prefigurative political strategy? Look at what happens when people obsess over co-opting power. It doesn't end well for anyone.

g: Yeah. Oh, so even though I do call myself a Marxist BAR, I will be the first to join you in what you said earlier in terms of “fuck Marx.” Part of that is because one thing that I have been very vocally critical about is that he had a history of being a young Hegelian. Hegel was very obviously influenced by the Haitian revolution in constructing his master-slave dialectic. So the way that Marx ignores the significant historical event of the Haitian revolution really encapsulates for me one of the examples of the translation of co-opting Black struggle into a sort of deraced broader class struggle. That co-optation is swept under the rug.

This is one of the elements that I do find Afro-pessimism to be valuable in terms of the way that it strongly articulates various attempts by non-Black struggles to mine Black struggle as a resource for what's often called “the ruse of analogy.” I find that in the context of the summer of 2020, there were simply two camps. There was the more authoritarian communist camp made up of the Marxist, Marxist-Leninists, Marxist-Leninist-Maoists who either tried to frame it as just a broader class struggle, a deraced worker's revolt . . . or there was this faction, and I hesitate to even associate any sort of anarchism with this, but I guess in some respects a lot of them were appealing to sort of a pseudo-anarchist milieu with the nonprofit industrial complex, pushing forward a specific form of abolitionism that was very much tailing the masses, where the masses were burning down police precincts.

These people were pushing for defunding instead of abolition. Co-opting of Black rage and Black frustration is such a crucial part of political activism now because co-optation keeps a lot of these organizations and groups going. It's what sustains them and gets them funding. They don't have any sort of incentive to address very specific contradictions because they're not interested in necessarily addressing those. They're interested in gaining funding. So the problems exist and they don't want them to go away because that is how they sustain themselves as groups. I feel that the other aspect of it has unfortunately come from non-Black queer spaces where there's been definitely a backlash against Black revolt that happened in 2020, especially since states have placed a larger target upon the backs of queer people, most especially trans people.

There's been a lot of non-Black, but especially white trans people, who have leaned very heavily into appealing to whiteness while also appropriating Black struggle. A recent thing that happened to me is the utilization of “say her name” within the context of white trans women, taking that from the context of naming Black women. When I pointed this out online, a lot of white trans people got upset at me. I found that one of the most common responses that I got was this attempt to equate the experience of Black women and Black womanhood in general to the experience of trans misogyny and white trans women experience. What it tells me is that there isn't necessarily a desire from a lot of people to understand the precarity of Black gender and especially the precarious situation that Black trans femmes find ourselves in.

Instead, there's an attempt to appeal to statecraft both through formal state institutions, but also more in more decentralized manners through whiteness, which is something that Black trans people and especially Black trans femmes cannot do because we aren't white, and more specifically we are Black. I feel that unfortunately that's also coincided with attempts to present Black struggle in general as the “problem child” of anti-racism, when anti-racism is not necessarily what it's necessarily what Black people need. Sure, we do need anti-racism, but we specifically need to be against anti-Blackness. I feel that there's been a convergence when it comes to non-Black people, particularly white trans struggle and the struggle of non-Black people of color. We saw an attempt by the state formally to utilize this when anti-Asian hate crimes spiked and the media immediately started presenting Black people as the problem and Black people as the culprits, even though everyone knows, and this is something that non-Black Asian abolitionists were pointing out, that white people are the ones who are primarily responsible for these acts of hate.

Unfortunately, that ended up being utilized as an excuse to expand carcerality and the prison system and policing in general. What we're seeing now is sort of a similar aspect in terms of the attempts by white trans people to present the solution to transphobia in terms of trans rights rather than trans liberation and even attempts to equivocate trans liberation with trans rights. The danger in that, of course, is the belief that the state will sufficiently protect all trans people and will protect all trans people equally, when for us as Black trans people, we know that's not the case. So this is just a very tangible example of the way in which co-opting has extremely violent and disastrous results. The primary way that co-opting continues to happen is through co-opting anti-Blackness and Black struggle, but it's also facilitated within Black organizations, within Black groups, and within Black spaces in academia through the appropriation of Black transness even. I find that a lot of Black feminist theory and Black queer theory unfortunately tries to appropriate Black transness and in some cases committing egregious errors. And it's not necessarily explicit or intentional, but what ends up often happening is an equivocating between drag and transness, which ends up with problematic results.

But I guess in general, the co-opting of Black struggle in general is something that has to be addressed, but it also goes beyond that into the specific co-opting of Black trans struggle. I feel that the only theoretical module that's sufficiently addressing that is Black materialist trans feminism. I think the frustrating part about that is that there's Black trans feminism that isn't necessarily materialist and unfortunately that's what's popular in the academy. So yeah, that's unfortunately a problem and I feel that there's sort of a feedback loop in terms of that in the academy and also just grassroots organizing.

NZ: I was going to say in terms of co-option, like while y'all were talking, I was thinking a lot about conversations I've been having with some of my comrades when trying to look at how socialism occurred in Africa and other parts of the Third World, and specifically their effects on gender sexual liberation. A lot of socialist experiments in Africa, according to Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariway (1997), ended up laying the groundwork for what would become neocolonialism. But that's not part of the story that is told when authoritarian communists talk about neocolonialism. They'll mostly speak to this idea of Western intervention, coup d’états led by the West, and folks within these contexts who had backward interests or who were traitors to the struggle. All of those things are very much true to the dynamics of neocolonialism. But the other part of it is, and this is something that I was noticing when reading Walter Rodney recently, he's not anarchist whatsoever, but he talks about how Tanzania's attempts at socialism were not originally led top-down. The masses and especially the limited proletarian, peasant classes, and other underclass were already moving toward socialist struggle on their own. So local wannabe bourgeois classes and petty bourgeois classes had to respond. You feel me? As author Modibo Kadalie once said, “Policy is epiphenomenal.” The same way that the moonlight is not actually its own light, it reflects sunlight. Statecraft actually follows the people.

The way that happened in this case was through co-option, the wannabe rulers of the state appealed to socialist struggle when it came to support for Ujamaa socialism for example, in Tanzania. But they only did so because they were outnumbered by the “masses” who were moving in that direction on they own. The only way that they could have gone after their own bourgeois interest is if they started out pretending that they were using the state to support these autonomous struggles but behind the scenes would try to enforce their own interests. For a state socialist perspective, though, the main pseudo-revolutionaries to consider are the ones appealing to precapitalist modes of production as a direct route to full communism. The state is supposed to “manage” revolution in anticipation of a very real problem where bourgeois and feudal contradictions may creep up in a “transition” phase. I believe Rodney (1972) also speaks to this concern in “Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism.” My thing is, as much as co-option could happen “from below,” it occurs from “top down” very often and both tendencies are threaded by gendered nexing.

So, in Tanzania, of the many ways that the wannabe capitalist and state managers tried to co-opt was through appealing to nationalism, this idea of reclaiming African values. And so they would define Ujamaa around the notion of the African family, African approaches to familyhood, African approaches to collective work in the village, et cetera, et cetera. But underneath that nationalistic appeal, they were organizing familyhood and village-ization around a nuclear family model and were imposing elements of that configuration in parts of the world where human embodiment wasn't nexed historically by no nuclear family, no binary gender household configuration.

So they attempted to impose a whole new gender system where it had not been entrenched under the auspices of anti-colonialism and socialist struggle. That created immense contradictions between the autonomous direction of what the masses were doing and how the leaders supposedly supported what was going on. From their top-down position or whatever. On top of environmental pressures and then financial pressures, especially from the outside world, that internal “contradiction” seriously limited Ujamaa, even though a lot of Black anarchists and socialists jointly consider Tanzania Ujamaa one of the more successful attempts at socialism on the ground in Africa compared to other experiments. Because of the statists using this veneer of support to co-opt, a huge part of the co-option being this gender nexus that was imposed under the guise of national development or whatever, that really undermined the struggle.

And that's what I be seeing in the US right now around us. What I see in 2020 when these people want to appeal to the worker, the worker, the worker, the worker . . . they might not be appealing to traditional African values or traditional values, but there's still this way of imposing a certain metric of embodiment and usually the worker fits within the household, fits within the nuclear family. They take that as a given. That's why you have proletarian feminists like the ones that jumped me and got me booted off Twitter last year talking about how “womanhood is a political class . . . ” Why you want gender to be a political class? Because of statecraft, representation in the party. That's what that's about. They don't want to center the nonproletarian classes and classes whose embodiment isn't necessarily nexed within patriarchy and the nuclear family and that sort of thing because they wouldn't be able to manage the party form in the way that they want to by trying to negotiate all of those diverse interests of various exploited and nondominant classes. They want to treat the rest of us like pawns in the struggle.

When thinking about co-option, how does policy and statecraft follow after mass, spontaneous, and autonomous activities? This veneer of policy conceals a way of undermining the movement on behalf of the niggas who are trying to do what they trying to do for they own interests at the top. But on the flip side of that, part of why I think that co-option ends up being so convincing for a lot of people is due to the fact that these authoritarian communists attack, counter-organize . . . edxi you were talking about this. I have experienced that even if it's not outright violence, they do whisper campaigns and disinfo campaigns online or behind the scenes.

If colonized people, and I'm just centering Black and Indigenous and other colonized people here, are being sold this like, “oh, we're all having unity around race or decolonization or gender, or even class,” folks easily get deceived, especially if anarchists are not offering an alternative. As much co-option and violence I've experienced from both authoritarian communists on the ground, I've also experienced that from white and even non-Black anarchists of color. When my comrades went to the Midwest leftist assembly in 2019, they were aggressed by white anarchists with guns. When an autonomous zone formed in Seattle, two Black kids were shot and one of them died. Rest in peace to Antonio Mays Jr. When my comrades were out here, we were collaborating with white anarchists around a housing project because we were centering houseless folks on the streets and in a women's shelter. The white anarchists were more concerned with the thrill of combatting the state in that moment than with establishing a long-term strategy for keeping the project we had established in place so that it could actually serve the people and be there as a resource for people to live. I see that as statecraft. If there is a “anti-statism,” but it's being led by and largely benefiting people whose embodiment is “nexed” vis-à-vis the imbrication of the state, like white folks, cis folks, whatever, and it's at the expense of those who are not—that's statecraft to me. Especially if they are appealing to shared, common, or universal struggle, but organize in a manner that suits their interests.

If those organizers only center themselves via their privileges and are not trying to reclaim and build something outside of this, the state is going to respond to what they're doing and strengthen its own technologies. There are right-wingers using what happened in CHOP CHAZ3 to basically try to undermine the whole 2020 rebellion. They're trying to appeal to Black people by saying, “Hey look what happened when y'all riot in the streets, leftists will come co-opt your struggle and then they will kill your children.” There are right-wingers building on the outside an agitator narrative, the same one Trump was pushing during 2020. Part of it is because of irresponsibility from white anarchists who were centering their own interests over the interests of marginalized people—especially Black, Indigenous, and colonized peoples.

The co-option in two parts: from the auth-coms like the PSL (Party for Socialism and Liberation) who show up to Black Lives Matter protests to make it about them, putting banners everywhere, all that shit to get visibility for their orgs, and second, the white anarchists that center themselves. Those two things claim to be in conflict with each other and they very much are, but their conflict with each other ends up reinforcing statecraft and to me that's co-option as well or it only incentivizes more co-option. We need an alternative way, a third route that's not a polarity. That's what I understand Black anarchism to be, especially as a transfeminist who's a Black anarchist.

NZ: I appreciate rapping with you both about these questions. I'm hoping we can collab more in the future!

Notes

1.

Nexed is the verb form of the noun nexus that NZ coined in works such as “Late Night Thoughts from a Dialectical Transfeminist” (Suekama 2023). NZ introduces a “nexus hypothesis” as an argument “that every society features ‘gendered’ and ‘non-gendered’ social forms that are ‘nexing’ human embodiment. These ‘nexing-forms’ or Nexuses constitute constraints in the evolution of material/power relations” (NZ's note to editors, May 24, 2023).

3.

Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) or Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP).

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