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Claiming a seat at the table

A reflection on poetry, violence and Black liberation.

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PHOTO BY DYLAN DAVIES
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN DAVIES

At its core, this essay is an act of healing.

I have written it for myself, as a reflection on my time with the western canon, and as an assertion to myself and to the world that my voice has value.

I draw from my memories and my lived experience.



I posit myself as the subject.

I speak with an earnest anger and an urgent exhaustion. I seethe.

But please understand that the spirit of this reflection is healing, and that to heal we must first release.

Each segment of the paper is scored by a song from Solange Knowles’ 2016 record A Seat at the Table. In interviews, Knowles describes the album as a project of identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing. She is adamant that the record was written and recorded for no explicit audience but herself, as an expression of her ideas and identity for her own sake.

Accompanying the lyrics is poetry from Nayyirah Waheed, a self-published American poet whose work centres around themes of colonialism, identity and love. It’s my intention that these poems guide the reader’s understanding, and inspire reflection on the ways that critical thought can be manifested across diverse genres.

Thank you for letting me take this risk.



[rise]


Fall in your ways so you can crumble
Fall in your ways so you can sleep at night
Fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise


we write from the body.
it remembers everything.
—melanin | bone and soil

Over the past few years I’ve been engaged in a dedicated study of the contemporary western canon, and of the ideas that have shaped and defined my world. I found myself struck by the absence of marginalized voices, and particularly of Black voices, among the great thinkers I was taught. We covered some of the big names, certainly (Cugoano, Douglass, Du Bois, Fanon...) but what lacked was an independent narrative: Theories about Blackness that contradicted one another, theorizations from Black people that were not only about Blackness; critique and conversation that could establish Black theory as a stable pillar of the western canon. The result was a strange sort of alienation from my work. When we studied white thinkers, I was always suspicious, always searching for some evidence of their racial politics. When we studied Black thinkers, I always looked around the room to find myself the only Black student—the only student who could understand the text through their lived experience.

To be marginalized, to be Black, to be a Black woman in the humanities can be hauntingly isolating. I saw this struggle reflected back to me for the first time in reading bell hooks’ reflection on postmodern Blackness. She introduces the essay by acknowledging her fear that she may be speaking alone: “I enter a discourse, a practice,” she says, “where there may be no ready audience for my words, no clear listener, uncertain then, that my voice can or will be heard.”

We are taught to doubt the value of our voice. We learn to doubt that our lived experience has value because those around us cannot see themselves in it. We learn to doubt that our voices will contribute meaningfully because those around us simply will not understand. We learn to doubt that we may think for ourselves because we see Black thought limited by the structures of a largely white canon.

And so this story began to take shape. I was inspired by hooks’ assertion that we must not settle for there being “no meaningful connection between Black experience and critical thinking about aesthetics or culture,” and by Frantz Fanon’s equally fervent insistence that “ontology does not allow us to understand the being of the Black man, since it ignores the lived experience.” Both thinkers reassured me that my voice, my experiences, had value.

I decided to respond. I decided to take a risk. I decided to insert my voice into critical discussion, not as the neutral (read: white) academic that I had learned to be, but as fully myself. As a Black woman whose lived experiences never fail to inform her approach to theory. As a student of the contemporary, of popular culture and of the present age.

I will talk about escape. I will talk about immanence and entrapment. I will talk about subjectivity and the modern Black woman. I want us to think of art, of poetry, as a sort of liberatory violence, capable of leading the escape from immanence and the capture of radical subjectivity.

[weary]

I’m weary of the ways of the world
Be weary of the ways of the world
I’m weary of the ways of the world

I’m gonna look for my body
yeah I’ll be back real soon

On this second track of her album, Knowles is slow and sorrowful. She mourns her place in the world, the place afforded to her by hierarchies of gender and race. To exist in this situation, she suggests, is wearying. She describes the loss she experiences from this position; looking for her body, for herself, in a world that has taken it from her. She is isolated from herself.

The image of one’s body, writes Fanon, is “an image in the third person. All around the body reigns an atmosphere of uncertainty.”

Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks was a daring interjection into the contemporary canon. A radical Martinican raised under a colonial regime, Fanon challenged established ideas about recognition and identity by centering his own lived experience as a Black man in his critical theory. He describes the situation of the Black man within the contextual framework of his own life; his theory is aimed at the colonized Caribbean Black man and the French Black man, but his responses point to critical problems for the Black subject more generally.

When the Black man enters the world, he desires to be a subject like any other. The Black soul, however, must face the reality that it’s not permitted to see itself at the origin of the world. It is inseparable from the Black body—a body designated as visibly Other in the world. The Black soul encounters itself in the world as “an object among objects.”

The Black man’s internal and external life split. Though he may wish to assert himself as a subject, he encounters himself as an object because this is how the world treats him. His identity is thus unmoored. As an Other, an object, the Black man searches for his identity to be dictated to him by the subject—by whiteness.

“The white man is all around me,” says Fanon. “All this whiteness burns me to a cinder.”

Whiteness defines Blackness as its opposite. Whiteness permeates society. Blackness is asked to hide away, or at least to conform. White voices are amplified. Black voices are silenced. The definition of Black identity that the Black person encounters in the world is a caricature full of stereotypes and assumptions drawn for him by the white gaze. The Black man attempts to conform to this caricature nonetheless, in hope that he may find acceptance.

“Be leery ’bout your place in the world,” warns Knowles. “You’re feeling like you’re chasing the world / You’re leaving not a trace in the world / But you’re facing the world.”

The Black soul faces the world, attempts to project itself onto the world, but is rendered invisible. All the while, the Black soul chases the world, hoping to be taken up by it, hoping to embody the ideals of whiteness in order to find a place.

Fanon describes this condition as existing “in triple:” As himself (the subject), as the white gaze projected onto him (the object) and as the assimilated, respectable self he must project in order to navigate the world.

The Black identity by itself and for itself is fractured, and under the searing gaze of whiteness it fades away, unable to find itself. The Black identity is locked in immanence; unable to act freely because it’s unable to know itself and experience itself fully in the world. It is constantly divided, constantly uncertain.

you can not
remain
a
war
between
what you want to say (who you really are).
and
what you should say (who you pretend to be).
your mouth was not designed to eat itself.
—split

[mad]

I ran into this girl, she said, “Why you always blaming?”
”Why you can’t just face it?”
”Why you always gotta be so mad?”
I got a lot to be mad about


The day I first encountered Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry, I was inconsolably mad. I was in the aftershocks of an explosive confrontation with the reality of being Black, of being Other, in my institution. I had chosen that week to speak up about the isolating experience of being marginalized in the organization I worked for at the time, and to criticize the organization’s pattern of appropriating Black art to entertain white audiences. The ensuing days were a whirlwind of conflicts, both internal and external. I calmly listened to every antagonizer. I accepted chastisement from my bosses. I apologized when it was asked of me (even when it hurt). I thanked many well-meaning friends for their sympathy, for their guilt. Beneath it all, I was mad.

When I first read Waheed, I was sitting on a dirty little beige couch in a back office at work, shaking with tears after a difficult meeting with my bosses. A co-worker—a woman of colour who I looked up to—had brought me a small gift bag. It was a care package. She’d filled it with snacks, bath bombs, notes of encouragement and four photocopied poems from Salt, Waheed’s second collection. All four are still pinned on my bedroom wall. They each moved me in their own way; each resonating with a part of myself I thought no one else could see. They describe a collective struggle, a collective resilience and a collective right to be mad.

if we
wanted
to.
people of colour
could
burn the world down.
for what
we
have experienced.
are experiencing.
but
we don’t.
—how stunningly beautiful that our sacred
respect for the earth. for life. is deeper than
our rage

These words washed cooly over the burning ache in my heart that day. Waheed understood my anger. She understood the rage that had begun to stir in my veins. She acknowledged it. Spoke softly to it. She returned it to me as a reminder of my love, gentleness and strength because Waheed, like Knowles, understood the importance of keeping this rage out of sight.

I ran into this girl, I said, “I’m tired of explaining”
Why you can’t just face?
Man this shit is draining
But I’m not really allowed to be mad.


The caricature of the “angry Black woman” looms over our rage—suppresses it, mocks it, silences it. When we’re mad, we’re not taken seriously, so it’s best not to let our anger show.

Rage burns hotly and unflinchingly at the centre of Fanon’s philosophy, and his experiences. The oppressed Black person’s rage is the catalyst for their freedom. Liberation, he boldly suggests, will come from violence. To arrive at such a conclusion, Fanon borrows from western thought’s fixation on dialectics and the notion that a person is only human to the extent that they are recognized by another.

At the end of slavery, Fanon says, “the white master recognized without a struggle the Black slave. But the former slave wants to have himself recognized.”

To achieve recognition, a consciousness must desire something beyond immanence, beyond life itself, and fight for it. The problem, according to Fanon, is that the end of slavery came without a risk of life—the Black man had been set free from oppression but he had not freed himself.

“The Black man is a slave who was allowed to assume a master’s attitude,” Fanon says. “The white man is a master who allowed his slaves to eat at his table.”

The solution, then, is to risk life. For the Black consciousness to be liberated, it must take a risk, disrupt the established systems, and yearn for something more.

“Since the Other was reluctant to recognize me, there was only one answer: To make myself known.”

In response to his position of immanence, Fanon acts, inserting himself into the world where he was not expected.

“I finally made up my mind to shout my Blackness,” he says. Fanon opposes his oppressors, pursuing recognition.

“Accommodate me as I am,” comes the cry of freedom. “I’m not accommodating anyone.”

[intermission: where do we go]

And I don’t know where to go
No I don’t know where to stay
Don’t know where to go
And I don’t know where to stay
Where do we go from here?
Do you know?
Where do we go from here


“Many of us are struggling to find new strategies of resistance. We must engage decolonization as a critical practice if we are to have meaningful chances of survival.”
—bell hooks

i have lost millions and millions
of words to fear.
tell me that is not violence.
—the deaths


[don’t touch my hair]

Don’t touch my hair
When it’s the feelings I wear
Don’t touch my soul
When it’s the rhythm I know
Don’t touch my crown
They say the vision I’ve found
Don’t touch what’s there
When it’s the feelings I wear


And so, here we are: Trapped in immanence, anger, discomfort, uncertainty. Identities fractured and unmoored. Fanon urges us to violence, disruption—an interjection! But where are we to interject? Where are we to shout our Blackness? Where will we make ourselves known?

In 1990 bell hooks takes up this question of Black liberation. She begins by pointing out the inaccessibility of postmodern thought for Black women, who are essentially absent from critical discourse.

“I find myself on the outside of the discourse looking in,” writes hooks. “As a discursive practice it is dominated primarily by the voices of white male intellectuals and/or academic elites who speak to and about one another with coded familiarity.”

Much postmodern debate aims to tear apart the idea of any essential identity to make room for diverse perspectives. Despite this desire for greater freedom, critical theory has long excluded and silenced Black voices.

“In the wake of the Black power movement, after so many rebels were slaughtered and lost, many of these voices were silenced by a repressive state; others became inarticulate,” says hooks. The critical Black voice remains marginalized.

Postmodern discourse often takes up questions of subjectivity and diversity, but neglects to make space for such diversity in its practice. The dominant narrative continues to constitute whiteness as the subject and Blackness as a suppressed Other. White voices comment upon diversity and comment upon Blackness without leaving room for these diverse voices to speak for themselves.

“We have too long had imposed upon us from both the outside and the inside a narrow, constricting notion of Blackness,” writes hooks.

Since the white gaze refuses to recognize Blackness as a subject in itself, it is time to stop looking to the white gaze to define or liberate Blackness. Liberation means opening spaces that allow “for the construction of self and the assertion of agency.”

hooks describes the struggle for Black liberation as a struggle for voice. It is a struggle to be heard. It is a struggle to be recognized as having spoken, as having something of value to say. It is a struggle against the structures and practices which have demonstrated a desire to silence and appropriate Black narratives for the white gaze. Postmodern Black liberation, particularly for the Black woman, is a struggle for self-ownership: To believe that our voices belong to ourselves and to convince the world that we are not up for grabs.

you ask
to touch my hair.
or worse
touch it without asking.
this is not innocence.
this is not ignorance.
this is not curiosity.
this is the very racist and subhuman belief
that
you have a right to me.
—i will break your hand | do not ever touch me | every time you touch me. my ancestors place a curse on you

[for us by us]

All my niggas in the whole wide world
Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn
For us, this shit is from us
Get so much from us
Then forget us

Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along
Just be glad you got the whole wide world
This us
This shit is from us
Some shit you can’t touch


It does not come as a surprise to me that this song, the most explicitly political on Knowles’ record, is also one of the album’s most popular tracks. Every now and then I’ll hear it played ambiently in a bar, or off a white friend’s laptop, and I’ll watch as the heavy, soulful beat and catchy taboo lyrics compel the room to tune in, to sway along. Every time I hear the song like this, I cringe.

“It’s not yours,” I catch myself thinking. “It says so right in the title!”
“F.U.B.U.” is an unapologetic ode to

Blackness, explicitly not meant to be possessed and reclaimed by the white gaze: Black empowerment is its sole purpose. From its opening lines it’s exclusive—Knowles repeatedly uses the N-word throughout, isolating white listeners. Her verses lament the litany of microaggressions that form part of the Black experience and they celebrate the Black community’s shared resilience. To her white audience, Solange simply offers the reminder that most of the world is already theirs. This song, these words, this collective memory is for us.

hooks and Fanon both present their readers with a problem: Despite years of struggle, the Black consciousness remains locked in immanence, doomed to conform to the identities constructed for it by the white subjective gaze. As a result, the Black consciousness is fractured and unable to be free.

Fanon points to struggle, for violence and a risk of life, in order to liberate the Black soul. I want to understand this as a disruption, not necessarily physical violence. The Other must pursue something beyond life, interrupting the status quo in order to move beyond it.

In postmodern times we’re faced with a similar problem: The Black voice is suppressed and silenced by white narratives. Our song is fractured, missing or confined within discursive practices. Liberation for the postmodern Black consciousness, then, should follow a similar course. In an essay on art and its importance to the contemporary age, hooks writes that “we can liberate ourselves and others only by forging in resistance identities that transcend narrowly defined limits.” Liberation, in other words, is fundamentally a process of defying and surpassing the limitations imposed by the colonial (white) gaze.

According to hooks, “art constitutes one of the rare locations where acts of transcendence can take place and have a wide-ranging transformative impact.” And so, at last, to art we turn.

In “Art on My Mind,” the introduction to a collection of essays on Blackness and art, hooks notes that “most Black folks do not believe that the presence of art in our lives is essential to our collective well-being.” Art, and here she means visual arts, is seen as an inaccessible privilege belonging to the upper class.

“Taking our cues from mainstream white culture, Black folks have tended to see art as completely unimportant in the struggle for survival,” she writes. “Black folks who thought there could be some art for art’s sake for Black people, well, they were seen as being out of the loop, apolitical.”

By contrast, poetry and music have always been at the core of the Black experience. Since the slave song, poetry has offered a rare opportunity for the subjective self-expression of Blackness—a rare opportunity for the Black identity to project itself into the world for its own sake. For both Fanon and hooks, poetry is a collective memory that’s long served to preserve and express Black thought. It provides space for discourse, disagreement and a critical discussion of social and political life.

In “Postmodern Blackness,” hooks makes a specific reference to rap music as the site of collective Black testimony; a common literacy. “Rap projects a critical voice,” she says, “explaining, demanding, urging.”

Accessible across class borders, these art forms provide a space for Black people to engage in socio-political discourse outside of established discursive practices. Because of this accessibility, these art forms are also most readily consumed by mainstream white audiences. As such, they offer the Black voice an unparalleled opportunity to influence contemporary society.

Where institutions of critical theory silence and suppress the Black voice, music amplifies it. The Black voice is projected into the canon, eagerly consumed by the white mainstream. There, white audiences must listen attentively while Black folks shout their Blackness, and finally confront Black subjectivity as it asserts itself to them.

a Black woman
can write of
loneliness.
or
love
or softness.
or the moon.
you may try valiantly
to cripple her
but she will still grow flowers in her flesh.
—a genocide of flowers

In poetry and music, the Black voice is not bound to conventions of language, of discourse or of identity politics. It belongs to rhythm, soul and the earth. It defies containment and draws strength at once from the collective consciousness and the individual subject. It has no prerequisites. It is free. Brought face-to-face with the white gaze, there ensues a disruption of expected power relations. The white gaze, accustomed to being the sole subject, must confront the Black Other, who unflinchingly declares themself a subject, too. Poetry disrupts and reorders the world around itself in order to fashion a space for the Black identity to assert itself upon the world.

Let’s return briefly to “F.U.B.U.” It is Black art that celebrates Blackness while deliberately isolating whiteness. Blackness is the subject, and whiteness the Other. This reversal is violent. It does not simply project Blackness into the white canon. It sets itself in opposition to the canon. It flips the canon on its head. Knowles’ song doesn’t passively confront the world, it acts upon the world. It confronts whiteness and then transcends it. It issues a challenge by becoming inaccessible, unknowable, unpossessable. It is an act of liberation.

A Seat at the Table, Nayyirah Waheed’s Salt—both of these works are Black women asserting themselves upon the world as radical individual subjects. It is not insignificant that both were self-published—created outside of the influences of white institutions. Created by Black women, for Black women. They do not exist to pander to the white gaze. They are the Black gaze. They assert themselves. They speak to their world. Each poem disrupts expected power dynamics by asking the reader to assume the Black gaze as the subjective one. Each poem enacts violence. Each poem, an act of liberation.

[borderline (an ode to self care)]

You know I have the world to think
And I know I gotta go ahead and take some time
Because the last thing that I want
Is thinking that it’s time that I leave the borderline


To be Black in the world is not easy. It is full of weariness, anger, pain and fear. It is full of heartache, but it abounds in resilience. Knowles acknowledges a need to step away at times, to seek rest. Inserting oneself into the canon, disrupting expectations, asserting subjectivity—­it all requires energy. It is not sustainable to be constantly in a state of struggle. It’s important to retain tenderness. It is important to rest. To bring us to this place of rest, I want to conclude by offering up one last poem. One that is quite close to my heart. It has brought me solace and reminded me of the strength that comes from gentleness. There is freedom in assertion, in violence, but there is a wild freedom in tenderness, too. It reminds me to rest.

Black women breathe flowers, too.
just because
we are taught to grow them in the lining of our
quiet (our grandmother’s secret).
does not mean
we do not swelter with wild tenderness.
we soft swim.
we petal.
we scent limbs.
love.
we just have been too long a garden for sharp
and deadly teeth.
so we
have
grown
ourselves
into
greenhouses.
—greenhouses

PHOTO BY DYLAN DAVIES
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN DAVIES

Julia-Simone Rutgers is a journalism and contemporary studies student at the University of King’s College whose work focuses on centering and amplifying marginalized, particularly BIPOC, voices. This piece is an adaptation of one of her last ever contemporary studies essays.

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