The following is part of the first installment of our “Captive Maternal Roundtable” on Joy James’ new book, In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities.
“We are at war, and we’ve been at war for over 400-something years now […] I want [freedom], and I'll die for this.”
Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice and founder/CEO of the Tamir Rice Foundation, spoke those words on a roundtable about family, freedom, and security—moderated by Joy James. Those words took me back to the foreword I wrote for Joy James’s most recent title, In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities (IPORL), and the return to that foreword brought me here. Freedom—the state of no longer being a slave or the ability to have control over one’s own life; the power, capability, and will to have life at all—is something I imagine we all want. Or at least we think we do.
In the foreword, I write:
“Through my reading of James’s work, Revolutionary Love becomes the force through which I understand death to be an essential and vital part of revolution. Said differently, dying for the revolution is a necessary part of struggle, in one way or another, and Revolutionary Love—this unrequited political will—is the catalyst. This means that death and dying does not always come by way of murder in the streets by the police or other white supremacists, but through attempting to divest from all of the structures that wield power over us—and doing so earnestly. Revolutionary Love calls us to acknowledge that the state and the state’s violence are only a fragment of the sadistic nature of antiblackness; that our struggle for liberation cannot and must not be limited to critiques of state power but rather they must extend to the metaphysical, global structures through which the state apparatus maintains its power. It is a call to sacrifice; to sacrifice our lives, our relationships, our time, our livelihoods with the understanding that nothing is guaranteed in return.”
We often hear revolution discussed in a way that suggests that it is mythological, hypothetical and theoretical; as though it is a dreamworld, a fairytale, or an illusion. We see revolution likened to pink-pussy-hat-wearing (majority) white women marching alongside congresspeople; to black celebrities and negroliberals taking film crews into cities not their own and capitalizing off of the slaying of more black flesh by police; to sitting in conferences and convenings, in cities populated by ever-growing numbers of beings without shelter, discussing policy change that never comes.
An example of what we sacrifice can be found in the chapter titled “The Agape of Peaches” in IPORL, Peaches writes with great clarity on the ways antiblackness strips us of any ability to be in relationship with our loved ones; that for freedom to be won, our relationships must parish—as evidenced by her departing from her family for the sake of revolution. In her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,'' Hortense Spillers explains that kinship is defined over and against the black subject; that kinship, relatedness or relationships by another name, is rendered an impossibility for the black subject in a system wherein black flesh is always already overseen by the master. The feeling of family and relationships may be possible (though not inevitable), but the function of these structures is to maintain white supremacy through antiblackness. Through both Peaches’s letter and Spilers’s theorizing, what is clarified is that all of our relationships, in one capacity or another, cannot be divorced from antiblackness.
Family and relationships, our blackness and culture(s), gender and sexuality, religion, language, and more. All of these concepts, structures, and identities are direct results of—and responses to—antiblack world-making and colonial violence. Revolution, the world-destroying phenomenon that it is, requires the death of all of these entities. But our desires, our hope to bring parts of what we know—even if those things sustain antiblackness—to “the other side” plays a significant role in stunting or quelling any sort of revolutionary aspirations. This is the afterlife of slavery: a winning desire to be a slave over being free.
As Saidiya Hartman moves us to understanding in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, “the shocking and the terrible” of slavery aren't the only aspects of slavery where terror is present. The parts where we are whipped in fields or, in a more modern context, murdered by police, are the appalling and distressing modes of violence that lead us to denouncing slavery. But the characteristics of slavery that are more monotonous or quotidian are what convince us that slavery is normal or redeemable. These elements—in today’s context—are defined by things like Black Love, and Black Joy, and Black Girl Magic. It can’t be overstated the pernicious, deleterious effects that pleasure has on the black psyche through the way it teaches us that slavery—black suffering—can be subverted by shifting focus from the spectacular to the mundane, or what’s often categorized as “normal”; or rather through the way we are taught to disregard the fact that the aforementioned elements are only attempted realities because of antiblackness.
In a talk titled “Black Feminism Beyond the Human,” Patrice Douglass—an Assistant Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley—expounds on this point to clarify the violence of slavery beyond its butchery. She says, “[…] there’s too much of a reliance on thinking slavery as malicious behavior, and thinking that the grip of slavery is about a form of hate and physical laceration, physical brutalization; and not thinking about the unethical conditions for which white people can determine the care—be it morally positive or negative—of black people as being the essence of slavery itself. And that black people are always in the care—however that’s established—of a white judging and a determinant eye.”
This is important because, as our desires shape our commitment to slavery, it’s necessary to elucidate what shapes our desires. These depraved and deceitful conditions Douglass is talking about create and mold the ties that bind us to order. Stated more clearly, we are conditioned to prioritize care and peace as a way to render revolution an impossibility. This conditioning is done through the “unethical conditions” or the monotonous characteristics that make us want to live in spite of the ways that the world seeks to kill us every day. Our commitment to “peaceful protest,” for example, as a viable solution to antiblack violence—or a call for peace in place of struggling against antiblack violence—is foundational to the maintenance of antiblackness as a global structure; it is sustained through our desire to hold on to identities and structures produced by the making of the slave.
As a point of clarity: this is not a call for martyrdom. A martyr is someone who is killed for their political (or politicized) beliefs. What I am discussing is the death of the political being itself; that we die in revolt for the sake of antiblackness’s demise. Martyrdom individualizes antiblack violence and state-sanctioned murder, which then forces us into a cycle of ambulance chasing, as Samaria Rice names it, as opposed to un/intentional aggression against the state. When I write that revolution is a sacrifice with nothing guaranteed in return, it is to say that we have only thought of revolution as a point on a historical timeline and not as the tool that forces the collapse of slavery. Approximately 345 thousand people died during the Haitian Revolution, most of whom were slaves in revolt. Over 200 slaves were murdered during the rebellion led by Nat Turner. And while these are perhaps two of the most prominent slave revolts in history, after 200 years since they each took place, neither black subjects in the U.S. nor in Haiti are any closer to being free from the boot of american imperialism, its brutal force, and overall antiblack violence.
What is freedom if the state can still superimpose itself onto you and your people? If the state can pass legislation to ensure you don’t have the means to revolt again? If, by the power of the state, scientists and anthropologists can medicalize black beinghood as a way to discipline and punish the (former or ex-) slave for their perceived freedom, or the hope to one day be free? What is freedom if statehood and its sovereignty is the metric by which we determine it? This is not an indictment of the Haitian people, or of the slaves who revolted, but is rather a commentary on just how pervasive antiblackness is and therefore just how violent revolution must be. This is an analysis of the stakes of revolution, desire, and death. In an unpublished conversation between myself and Tea Troutman, a doctoral student in Black geographies and a longtime friend, they had this to say regarding care and abolitionism: “niggas want a revolutionary lullaby to put them to sleep when revolution with nothing left to inherit is the final call. The final solution.”
We must commit to sacrificing our desires with the understanding that revolution will leave us with nothing we have ever known. And if we cannot kill our desires, if we are always beholden to desire, revolution is already an impossibility.
Da'Shaun Harrison is Editor-at-Large of Scalawag Magazine and author of Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness.