By Marquis Bey
“The fugitivity of these images lies not in their ability to sanction movement but in the creation of new possibilities for living lives that refused a regulatory regime from which they could not be removed.”
—Tina Campt, “Performing Stillness”
“i am not born this morning when you wake up in fear and look frantic for breakfast to belittle, for something to burn and consume. i am before that….before black is bad and broken i am more. i am not coin or token. i am deepest spell spoken. and you are shook.”
—Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity
The events of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017 mark another notch in the genealogical chain of white male supremacy—a chain fueled by terror, among numerous other things. We are thoroughly acquainted with the various iterations of hissy-fits from white men and their supremacist acolytes and sycophants. We’ve met this before.
But I don’t wish to dwell on this lineage. Rather, I want to post-up within the Black radical feminist tradition of confronting white supremacy, and these fugitive refusals being “ontologically”—or in one’s essential being—reduced to racial and gendered abjection.
An image appeared across my Facebook timeline: that of a Black woman, within inches of the hooded face of a KKK member. Her face, tilted slightly upward, poised her eyes directly at his too timid to announce themselves without the guise of ersatz power. This Black women gazed back, refusing to be merely looked upon in amused contempt. She, in the vein of Zora Neale Hurston, chose “not to weep at the world” but instead to sharpen her “oyster knife,” readying herself to lacerate the confines imposed upon her.
This is the legacy we must choose to inherit. Legacies, indeed, can and have, and must, be chosen. It is a legacy of ongoing escape, of fracturing those structures seeking to coerce us into immobilized abjection, of rebellious spirit, of demanding that we will neither disappear nor comply. The legacy I choose is that of the radicality of Black feminism.
What would it mean to follow, with the utmost unyielding seriousness, Hortense Spillers, who foundations her life with a Black feminism characterized by “philosophical ‘disobedience’ (a systematic skepticism and refusal)”? What would it mean to follow Toni Morrison’s axiomatic declaration that “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear”? What would it mean to follow Miss Major and know that we’ve “been chased but not caught”?
My insistence on Black feminism—that disobedient modality of rupturative thinking, living, and doing rooted in the knowledge begat by the racial and gendered nexus of Black women—stems from a commitment to “ungendered” and ungendering Blackness, specifically the commitment of Black cis and trans women. This ungendering deploys the disruption of white male supremacist logics by refusing terror, by reveling in those moments of exceeding captivity.
It is the “Nah” of Rosa Parks, the “We out!” of Harriet Tubman, the “I came to slay, bitch!” of Big Freedia that characterizes the Black feminist tradition. Claim to power is not recognized, and in that non-recognition the power cannot hold. Chains cannot fetter my flight, they rattle, clank, and break. Templates masquerading as universal will be vitiated by my very enactment of my bad self. Go ‘head.
We must refuse to allow the various supremacies that seek to condition the world to dictate our livelihood. And yet, the question often arises: when we got that shit coming out the woodworks, how do we continue to persist, to not feel defeated despite our most formidable efforts? Quite simply, we persist because we must. The claim to life on the earth we’ve inherited is not monopolized by the murderous limbs of hegemony—white and male supremacy, trans-antagonism, heteronormativity, elitism, anti-Blackness, colonial imperialism—and extends into the generative and volatile space of the underground, the undercommons.
We still, always, do abolition today and tomorrow as subversive intellectuals, feminist killjoys, Black radicals, “nasty women,” activistic accomplices, muhfuckin’ goons. We will, as Black women have long shown us, celebrate, because we’ve always, always, been met with imminent danger. We will celebrate—regardless, to creatively purloin Alice Walker—because things have always been trying to kill us. And they, once again, will fail. This is not naïveté; this is the melodious acumen of Black feminism.
Black radical feminism is the only kind of god to which I feel the need to pray, as the incantatory tremors of its abolishing the shitty regimes of white, male, cis, straight, etc. etc. etc. violence strike me as the only means by which the world’s ills can be purged. Black feminism posits a radical future in which we might, hopefully, someday, live. The Black feminism to which I bow with my pen, feet, mind, and body operates on what grammarians would call “future real conditional” tense, or that which will have had to happen for the future to be realized, a future that hasn’t yet happened but must—a Black feminist grammar. This is the alternative grammar for our bodies and lives to which we must turn. It is the idea of living the radical future now.
This grammar, concerned with the rewriting of the future through the disruption of the now, sustains Black feminist livelihood because it nourishes the possibility to live an unbounded life. We might also call this unbounded life, engendered by Black feminist grammar, freedom. And “Freedom never scared a colored person,” said Amy Kelly’s grandmother, “that’s one lie told.” And y’all can’t be telling lies when we got freedom dreams toward which to aspire.
We cannot mobilize around, and actualize, the radically different world in which we wish to live until we refuse the one we have been given. The refusal is where it’s at; the refusal, which is to say a kind of inoculation of Black flesh against the purported weightiness of normative physical and discursive structures, is the site of daring to exist otherwise. It is that Black woman leering back at the hooded eyes and demanding that all which that hood signified—a prominent, fundamental strain, one might say, of the history of this nation—could not quash her commitment to living.
Black feminism has called out the illusory weight of the Big Bad Wolf who has cloaked himself in the garb of inflated power. Black feminism has used the Wolf’s government name. And, what do you know, it got shook.
Marquis Bey is a PhD candidate in Cornell University’s English department studying Black feminist theorizing, transgender studies, and 21st-century African American literature. When he is not swooning to his “academic jam,” he is, well, still doing the discursive work of Black feminism, trans theorizing, and radical social justice.