Lecture Notes: Wake Work, Life Work

With Kola Abimbola’s Freshman Seminar lecture, “Omoluwabi: Self Actualization and Communal Responsibility,” we were reminded of the profound insight that having life, having existence (iwa) is also having character (iwa). We ought to live for something, to live for something is to acknowledge how we have lived. And now it is to also acknowledge that life has been uprooted, destabilized, compromised, by what Sylvia Wynter calls the “present order of knowledge.”[1] Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being reminds us also that we have always known these things, but what we need now, more than ever is to connect ourselves to re-memory. Sharpe renders Black life as “the wake,” always being “in consequence of” someone else’s meaning for our existence and always being “conscious” of the very fact that this is not existence. What she calls “wake work” is a call to be undisciplined, to take the present order of knowledge as an obfuscation, as dysgraphia, as not knowing at all. And to turn to our ways of knowing, our own ruttiers, as paths out, as paths of retour. We are in the wake because we are placed there; we are in the wake because we have to be. “We are constituted through and by continued vulnerability to this overwhelming force, we are not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force” (16; 134).

Sharpe’s intervention is also an introduction to new ways of seeing, new ways of editing, adding, making our lives. This wake work relies on a coterie of thinkers and scholars whose work we would do well to read and reread, whose visions of the world animate existence in forms and spaces that call for our inhabitation, for our togetherness. We inhabit their words and worlds with Sharpe, so that we can re-see, re-vision. So that we can be again. So we remain beholden by their insistence on and of Black being. Fred Moten and Hortense Spillers are in conversation with Dionne Brand and Kamau Brathwaite. Western civilization is critiqued, imagined anew as being made, as being the ship. Toni Morrison and M. NourbeSe Philip are in conversation with Kara Walker and Rodney Leon. We must not think the ship is all we can be, for it contains more than cargo. It trans*mutes, but does not trans*form us into things. Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, and Saidiya Hartman appear with us, reminding us that our subjection make us want to be, to breathe; they do not negate our being. And with them we connect to ancestors, those whose ancestry came to soon, those the Weather of anti-Blackness swept: Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Michael Brown, Hadiya Pendleton. We mourn, but also remember that there is otherwise. We have always trans*’d this corruption of life. So we will breathe, because the present ecology of life is a disruption, not a destination. We “are held, and held.”[2]

Wake work is life work. We are working on life, and living. And to live is to have lived. To have existed. To have character. To have iwa. It is with Sharpe’s reminders of these perennial questions of human existence and its meaning that we endeavor to live even more. In consequence of—who we are.

[1] See Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, It’s Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3 (Fall 2003): 322.

[2] Dionne Brand quoted on page 68.


Lecture Notes: Ontologically Total

In Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s “Diaspora,” the band plays along a consistent rhythmic and harmonic pattern, while Scott attends to the work of connecting with and to it. It is the convergence of the always and the necessary now, something Black music always done, something that marks it as Black and (blue). And it perfectly describes “the nature of the Black radical tradition.” It is both always and right now.

In Chapter Seven of Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson attends to the always after having narrated the right “then,” the historical archaeology of Black radicalism from San Lorenzo de los Negros to the Nongquase. What remained, “in the wake,” was a Black insistence on being whole. It calls to mind that what guided the Black radical tradition was not a material reality (though this does not mean that enslaved Africans were not aware of their material conditions), but the ways in which that material reality converged or diverged with how they saw themselves, and how they saw the world. And that world was both the world and beyond the world. The seen and the unseen. The separation of the material and ideal, a problem of Western thought, has led some to see Cedric Robinson’s work as “Hegelian.” This of course, assumes that Black thinkers cannot produce “theory,” that Black life is not theoretical without the crutch of Western philosophy.[1] In an unpublished paper, I wrote:

Rooted in the assumption that one could separate the articulation of ideas that would govern how we envision the future from actually enacting that future, this seeming paradox has too often been misapplied to activities embarked upon in the context of our long sojourn and confrontation with modernity. But this theory versus practice binary is only part of a larger philosophical question. Closely, if not inextricably related to the above, is the assumption that one can or should separate the mind (the mental, theory) from the body (the physical, practice), rooted in Cartesian logic, the philosophical contributions of the French thinker, Rene Descartes. This recent (in world historical terms) philosophical approach to the study of reality has engendered a set of misapprehensions of what constitutes the known and the possibilities of what can be known. It is perhaps a key node in unpacking what [Jacob] Carruthers’ terms “the metaphysics of alienation” for it structures the bulk of what we might consider academic knowledge. To be academic is to base claims of knowing and doing on what the mind can perceive. Thus, man becomes master of all things. “I think, therefore I am.”

And academic knowledge made enslavement legible and possible. And enslavement constituted a rupture of the convergence between the material and ideal world, one that was always there in African thought. It created a condition where “actual being” was transmuted; “historical being” was negated. The Black radical tradition ensured that this process would not be whole, that it would not be total. And the fight against enslavement, against colonialism, was simultaneously a fight for. It was to ensure that the metaphysical be joined with the physical again, that the ancestors whose lives were extinguished be—again, that God could be—again; it was a fight to preserve the ontological totality (171). For Robinson, being total meant recreating a life that would have never, could have never “allowed for property in either physical, philosophical, temporal, legal, social, or psychic senses” (168). The reality as outlined in the Black radical tradition’s phenomenology is that the level of rapacious violence that had characterized Western civilization (and Western radicalism) was neither desired nor always required for the preservation of African life—not just their physical essence. But their lives, their whole lives. If we are to continue what those ancestors stood for and enacted, the question must always be for what and whom do we live; to be total and ontologically so.

[1] See Lewis Gordon’s introduction to What Fanon Said (Fordham, 2016), for a response to these presumptions. See also the #BlackTheory hashtag introduced on Twitter, by @jmjafrx.

Fall 2017 Readings and Sounds

Introduction to Africana Studies II

  • GOMEZ, MICHAEL A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
  • ROBERTS, NEIL. Freedom as Marronage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • SHARPE, CHRISTINA. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.
  • BLACK, DANIEL. The Coming. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.
  • DIOUF, SYLVIANE. Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
  • ROBINSON, CEDRIC. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Music: #HUAFRO06 – Being and Freedom

Black Thought in the Diaspora

  • HORNE, GERALD. Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary. London: Pluto Press, 2016.
  • MAKALANI, MINKAH. In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism, from Harlem to London, 1917-1939. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
  • ROBINSON, CEDRIC J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  • WALTERS, RONALD. Pan Africanism in the African Diaspora: An Analysis of Modern Afrocentric Political Movements. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993.
  • ADI, HAKIM. Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2013.
  • ITON, RICHARD. In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • SINGH, NIKHIL PAL. Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Music: #HUAFRO197- Black Thought in the Diaspora

Nineteenth Century Black Social and Political Thought

  • COOPER, ANNA JULIA. A Voice from the South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • DELANY, MARTIN. Blake; or the Huts of America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.
  • DU BOIS, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Free Press, 2000.
  • GARNET, HENRY HIGHLAND AND DAVID WALKER. Walker’s Appeal, with a Brief Sketch of His Life, and Also Garnet’s Address to the Slaves of the United States of America. Gloucester, UK: Dodo Press, 2007.
  • HARDING, VINCENT. There is a River: The Struggle for Black Freedom in America. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
  • HARPER, FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS. Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted. New York: Penguin, 2010.
  • BROTZ, HOWARD, ed. African American Social and Political Thought, 1850-1920. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008.
  • STUCKEY, STERLING. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Music: #HUAFRO133 -19th Century Black Social and Political Thought

Lecture Notes: On Rigor

We do not come fully formed. And we must accept that. Life would be less fulfilling if we did. Living life means forever developing. And the kind of life we require must be “lit by some larger vision.” It is only when we relinquish our desire to make ease our human standard and efficiency our bellwether will we see this light. In order to live one must work.

Our work is what keeps us, so therefore it is not to be taken lightly. What is also not to be taken lightly is the idea that we must work in order to improve our work. Development is not contained by any temporal boundary. It is continuous.

Our objective is to contribute to something larger than that which can be understood by the attainment of grades. Or degrees. Bound together with this larger goal is the realization that none of us are fully prepared to reach this goal. None of us. Students nor teachers. So we must struggle together to ensure that we are at the very least, moving toward the path, so that we can at least see the destination.

It is likely that we, ourselves, may never reach it. But work toward it, we must. Anything less, any effort not guided by this dictate, is an acceptance that we must always be where we are. Reading and writing, then is about liberation from a place–physical and conceptual–that limits our ability to realize not only ourselves, but where we might go.

To take this is as our task is to accept that rigor is our lot. This is work that will not be easy. It cannot be easy. If it comes to you easily, do not trust it. The only thing that we can trust is our commitment to doing it and the feeling of having done it. And that by doing it we have done all that we can do. That is our reward. And it is a reward that is well earned when we see others that have continued the work we began and extended.

Rigor is not punitive. It is simply a reality that the modern world and its challenges have placed for us. We are faced with thinking a freedom that is not inscribed in the logics of the available knowledges–or rather the knowledges made available to us. It would be easy to simply assign an exam that assessed how well you understood that which has been made available to us. It is harder to evaluate your ability to think beyond the permissible.

But this is our duty and such is our task. It may not come to us immediately. It is only when we take ourselves seriously to do the work and when we take our work seriously to understand what it is ultimately about, that the question of rigor feels less a burden and more a calling. Everything we do is about getting you to a point where you can see beyond the immediate context and connect Black thought–your thought–to a vision of freedom that transforms all of our lives. It starts with study. Unending study. And it continues with writing. Speaking a truth.


Lecture Notes: Reading The Terms of Order in the Age of Trump – Pt. 3

Politicians are not heroes.

But we should not dismiss the ways and reasons we imagine them as such. Charisma—and its manifestations in the charismatic leader, the charismatic event—represents a dynamic relationship, a way of knowing that might in fact lead us beyond the current political order, if understood in different ways. That it has been grafted (appropriated might be a better term) onto political order is for Robinson the demonstration of a “pathology” of charisma (154). In constructing the myth of political leadership that is at the core of Western societies, political actors have instituted a conception of order analogous to the Greek polis rendered through a Judeo-Christian concept of History—that is how we live and move through the world cognizant that we must do so in a particular way to stave off destruction, however defined. These conceptions of order transposed charisma from its “mystical” context in order to rationalize its usage for a market-conscious, bureaucratic edifice, which was itself the product of a newer myth, a newer grounding assumption: that of political leadership. (See Part Two). Chapter Four of the The Terms of Order, “The Messiah and the Metaphor,” deconstructs these relationships through a treatment of Max Weber, Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, relating the question of time to authority and both of these to the construction of mythologies—those ways we make sense of reality as well as its conceptual limits.

We respond to the catharsis of the charismatic event and the ecstasy of the charismatic leader because through those words, those experiences we descend toward a depth of spiritual connection that is irrational. While few of us felt this sort of connection to Donald Trump (some did, and we would do well to recognize this), Barack Obama has been described as perhaps the most charismatic political figure to occupy the presidency since John F. Kennedy. And we can certainly argue that his election was seen as cathartic, rent with ecstasy and joy. Yet, we must also argue that this charismatic event produced the continuities of the logics of a market society, fully arrayed against the deeper meaning of catharsis, fully arrayed against a system that exists for the alleviation of repressed feelings of fear (and perhaps, pain). Erica Edwards, author of the brilliant foreword to the new edition of Terms and of Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (2012), puts it well:

What Weber would not do, and what sociology since Weber has not done, is interrogate how charismatic authority as a cultural construction operates within gendered, racial ideologies of the self and the political and, further, how charismatic authority authors hierarchy as much through terror as through the seemingly benign manufacturing of consent.[1]

On the Obama moment, she argues:

The staging of black American history and identity as a parade of leaders ending with Obama—and the reapplication of that staging in the service of a postracial tale of American goodness—short-circuits desires for social, political, and economic justice and channels them into a fiction of leadership that is lacking in historical detail, structured in social hierarchy, and shaped by normative gender codes.[2]

When we (mis)read charisma as constitutive of political project premised on Western traditions of order with societies that rely on the “political” we implicitly accept the coercion and violence that inherently characterizes such a society. As Edwards argues, such violence is continuously present where this appropriation of charisma and the crafting of the charismatic scenario prevails. On this rationalized violence and its relationship to charisma, Robinson reminds us:

So Weber notwithstanding, political society and political order cannot logically locate their foundations, structurally, in the charismatic phenomenon for the substance of the relationship is fundamentally different from what can be achieved in a rationally related society. (153)

And when we take the language of the political and apply it to other ways of existing and being we commit epistemological violence assuming that what we know as political order is inherent to human social organization. Such was the contradiction of the anarchist theoreticians that Robinson explores in the final chapter, “On Anarchism.” Starting with ruminations on human nature of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, continuing through to eighteenth century anarchist William Godwin, and concluding with what he calls the individualist and the anarcho-socialist traditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Robinson concludes that anarchism could not escape the presumptions of political order that it was courageously arrayed against. Anarchist theory could oppose the social and political order, but it could not oppose social and political order.

Robinson ends the text with a reading of a group, the Ila-Tonga (of what is now Zambia), that demonstrated again that such conceptions of reality were not inherently human—even as the anthropological sources he used could not effectively break from the notion that primitive societies implied the absence of the State (by which they meant political order, and thus not modern, not civilized). Robinson however reads these societies as possessing a concept of social authority that was based on both kinship and what he calls the “principle of incompleteness”—that is, they built a concept of order that relied on “the indivisibility” of reality—humans, literally could not possess authority (196-199). This was refracted through the social and governance systems that defined life, which was just as concerned with metaphysical realities as material ones. Instead of violence, the Tonga jokester, through shame and humor, resolved transgressions of morality—a system of resolution immediately familiar to anyone that has played the dozens. While this section is suggestive, it represented a tendency to decolonize anthropological ways of knowing African thought systems that has produced important work in the thirty-seven years since this work was published.

And even as this is true, little work has been done to take this a step further by decolonizing our conceptions of political order (See Part I). In a little cited essay, “In Search of a Pan-African Commonwealth” (1996), Robinson argued that the political State was perhaps “an undeserving venue” to carry the energies of the anticolonial struggle, an argument that began with his invocation and critique of Kwame Nkrumah’s injunction to “Seek ye first the political kingdom.”[3] This is of course not a disavowal of political struggle, for as Robinson concludes Terms, we must “defend ourselves from the destructive objectification of the myth: the apparatuses of repression and control” (214). What must be done, that is not being done in this moment, however, is the second part of this work: “to subvert that [mythical] way of realizing ourselves” (215).


[1] Edwards, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership, 15.

[2]  Ibid, 191.

[3] Cedric Robinson, “In Search of a Pan African Commonwealth,” Social Identities 2 (1996): 161-168.

Books Read in 2017: January

A new year. New projects.

Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon, 1995)

Revisited this important text, especially for chapter 3 and the meaning of the unthinkable.

Aldon Morris, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (U. of California, 2015)

This text is one of recovery and causes us to ponder what is being recovered and for whom.

Lecture Notes: Reading The Terms of Order in the Age of Trump – Pt. 2

One thing has become very clear: From this text, one could derive endless insights. It is, quite frankly, never done with us.

So to continue, Robinson’s subject, leadership, is imagined to be not only rational or necessary, its very possibility is assumed. In fact, it requires us to assume that in the absence of leadership there can only be terror.

Yet, leadership is required by the crisis-experiences that accompanied the political (see Part I). Those crisis-experiences created the very rationales that required the logic and assumptions of leadership. And thus authority. Political thought then asserts that the leader is necessary, assuming that leadership will resolve the crisis-experience, all the while obscuring on whose behalf the crisis is understood and imagined, particularly the crisis-experiences germane to market societies.

In this construction, the leader cannot simply be part of the mass. The leader must be deviant, that is “extraordinary.” It is here where we might apply Robinson’s appreciation of the term to Donald J. Trump. While deviance has taken on a pathological turn within the behavioral sciences, what Robinson, following Mapheus Smith is indicating here is something different.  The leader is deviant; someone: “whose attainments, in terms of a set of goals are considered high; “whose status is recognized as superior to others engaged in the same activities; “who emit(s) stimuli that are ‘responded to integratively by other people” (49). Elsewhere, he cites Murray Edelman who identified the following characteristics of the “extraordinary” leader: intelligence, knowledge, skills, certainty, responsibility, capacity to give direction, success, conspicuousness, potentiality (40).

In some ways, Trump’s ascendancy has exploded the idea of the leader as deviant more than any exemplar thus far. Yet, we did not need Trump to see this. We merely needed to understand that all “political leadership  is the actualization of a myth, a legend, or as it were, a social ideology” (44-45). And in the case of the present order, “The market society informs the political authority of Western society. It is at its roots. The constructs of the market or economic society are one set of the material factors which service the political authority episteme” (55). In other words, the idea of the leadership is rationalized and premised upon the “eufunctionality” of the market society and thus the political.(In this sense, the desire to characterize Trump as socially or psychologically deviant is less helpful–if not ableist; his non-deviance vis-a-vis the relations of power are far more critical).

But this analysis of Trump’s leadership would be perhaps too simplistic and unsatisfactory a reading of Terms. While political leadership–and particularly Trump’s brand– cannot be said to constitute the substantiation of anything resembling justice, morality, or right-living. There is as Chapter Three, “The Question of Rationality,” suggests, much more that needs to be explained. We need to better understand the meaning of followership. And it is here where the irrational comes into view. Robinson, engaging a wide array of thinkers, asserts that political leadership becomes the attempt to contain or direct the subconscious irrational impulses considered to be continuances from the pre-rational or primitive order. Its presumptions toward rationality then perhaps cause us to endorse or “vote” for its representatives, because we desire order. And we fear order’s opposite: terror. Yet the desire for order, according to scholars such as Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and Norman Cohn, gave the world National Socialism (Nazism). Robinson desires that we utilize a mixed paradigm (the juxtaposition of traditions that are rational with those that are irrational) to offer a better vantage point than social science has thus offered. We can perhaps speculate that the maintenance of whiteness, required the “order” of Donald J. Trump as an attempt “to avoid the experience of terror” (107). If the above is right, such an avoidance is impossible, the past (and present) suggests that much more of humanity has “known order through terror” and has realized “terror in order” (106).