Lecture Notes: Of the Fantastic

The prevailing idea underscoring Richard Iton’s thesis in In Search of the Black Fantastic is that there is something of “value” in popular culture. That this something of “value” is necessary to understanding how Black people make sense of “the political;” or that range of practices that structure how the modern world operates. That this something is woefully under-analyzed within the disciplines that center the study of politics, wherein we conceive of how to be free.[1] And also, that this something of “value” is not merely an aesthetic valuation, that it is beyond the logic of the aesthetic or even a counter-aesthetic.[2]

It is somewhat ironic that the freest expressions and articulations of Black thought—those that exist within the cultural realm—are also seen by political thinkers as less serious domains of political engagement.[3] And that those areas which have been complicit in our domination—formal politics— are thought to be changeable, negotiable. Formal politics requires concessions, whereby our cultural traditions embody freedom. The rational liberal subject is no match for the blues. After all, as Randy Weston once queried my brother Henry Williams, “Who is more freer than Louis Armstrong?”

The Black fantastic then is that underside, or other side. That way of being that resists the idea that we must be transformed from a “thing” into something that is recognizable as citizen, as subject, as respectable, as normative. And a knowing that even if this was possible, it would require what E. Franklin Frazier calls a sort of self-effacement. Thankfully, the Black fantastic exists outside of Frazier’s world of “make-believe” and it provides a source for thinking and creating that is only beholden to those who live “in the wake” of modernity.

Yet there are still challenges. Commodication. Technology. The imposition of industry in art. The requirements of the aesthetic that make creating a counter-aesthetic seem plausible. The attempt to graft flawed understandings and meanings of normal politics within the domains of the fantastic, a practice Iton links to the development of a superpublic; a kind of neo-minstrelsy.[4] The imprecise ways we frame diaspora and the larger implications of Black thought beyond the nation.[5] These are its limits. But such limits are more about the external modes that structure its appearance, rather than the internal logics that make the Black fantastic. And so what we need more than anything is art that continuously subverts those externalities and when that subversion is incorporated, art that subverts that incorporation. It is a cycle.

And like Iton, we need to search for that subversion while holding steady a critical eye toward the external forces that limit us. They in fact, exist in a tension between modes of belonging and visions of freedom. Those freest visions interrupt normal politics by offering a vantage point and sensibility that stands apart rather than within. And they are always with us—playing out, under, and against.[6] Through thick and thin.[7] Ultimately, recognition is not a practice of being seen as much as it is about changing what it is to be seen and what seeing is. The political is an inferior space for such an awareness. The fantastic points us to another view from the bridge

[1] See Iton, In Search, Chapter One.

[2] Iton is one of few scholars that directly respond to the challenge of Clyde Taylor’s The Mask of Art (Indiana UP, 1998).

[3] Iton directly singles out the scholar, Adolph Reed, Jr. See his Stirrings in the Jug (UMN Press, 1999); Class Notes (New Press, 2000); and The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (Yale, 1986), among others.

[4] See Iton, In Search, Chapters Four and Five.

[5] See Iton, In Seach, Chapters Six and Seven.

[6] See pages 210-18.

[7] See pages 148-57.


Spring 2018 Readings and Sounds

This semester’s books (and music):

Honors Social Science Seminar

  • W.E.B. DU BOIS, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 2000)
  • W.E.B. DU BOIS, The World and Africa: An Inquiry Into the Part Which Africa has Played in World History (New York: International Publishers, [1946], 1965)
  • W.E.B. DU BOIS, Writings, ed. Nathaniel Huggins (New York: Library of America, 1986)
  • W.E.B. DU BOIS, The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Century, ed. Nahum Dimitri Chandler (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015)
  • ERIC J. SUNDQUIST, ed. The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • DAVID LEVERING LEWIS, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2009)

Music:  https://open.spotify.com/user/1245819475/playlist/2byfXuNqOcZFFVmQDx2MKE

Twentieth Century Black Social and Political Thought

  • W.E.B. DU BOIS, The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing my Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (New York: International Publishers, 1968)
  • CEDRIC JOHNSON, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)
  • ROBIN D.G. KELLEY, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002)
  • TONI MORRISON, Paradise (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)
  • TONI MORRISON, Song of Solomon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977)
  • NIKHIL PAL SINGH, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004)
  • ROBIN D.G. KELLEY AND EARL LEWIS, eds. To Make Our World Anew: Volume Two: A History of African Americans since 1880 (London and New York: Routledge, 1997)
  • MANNING MARABLE AND LEITH MULLINGS, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: An African American Anthology, 2nd Edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009)
  • CEDRIC J. ROBINSON, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2000)

Music: https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/1245819475/playlist/456usGTbnUFOz0CqWIoQkJ

Introduction to Africana Studies I

  • ITON, RICHARD. In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • STUCKEY, STERLING. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, [1987], 2013)
  • 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, 1998)
  • HOLLOWAY, JOSEPH E., ed. Africanisms in American Culture (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993)
  • WELSH-ASANTE, KARIAMU, ed. The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993)

Music: https://open.spotify.com/user/1245819475/playlist/2rYpz8RGlvqR4tb7beyWSM


when they come

when they come there is no refuge no hiding place only confrontation inevitable facing them maybe embracing them but never escaping them they are here to stay to push to prod to force


to force us together thinking loving being for they are a reminder that all that is and can be is already

is already

so face the inevitable with the confidence of memory with the confidence of knowledge that there is order in the world this is no accident there is always a reason.

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