Couplets: Travels in Speculative Pragmatism is a collection of twenty-four essential essays written by Brian Massumi over the past thirty years and is both a primer for those new to his work and a supplemental resource for those already engaged with his thought.
A new twentieth anniversary edition of Brian Massumi’s pioneering and highly influential Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation includes a significant new preface that situates the book in relation to developments since its first publication and outlines the evolution of its main concepts.
In Moving Home: Gender, Place, and Travel Writing in the Early Black Atlantic, Sandra Gunning complicates understandings of the Black Atlantic through an exploration of 19th-century travel writing. Analyzing accounts from missionaries, abolitionists, entrepreneurs, and explorers, Gunning sheds light on African diasporic mobility even amidst the constraints of imperialism.
Saturation: An Elemental Politics, a collection edited by Melody Jue and Rafico Ruiz, brings a scientific concept to media studies, showing how elements in the natural world affect and are affected by human culture and politics.
Rana M. Jaleel’s The Work of Rape links international law’s redefinition of mass rape as a crime against humanity to the expansion of US imperialism and its effacement of racialized violence and dispossession.
In The Deconstruction of Sex, Irving Goh conducts a series of conversations with the late philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in which they deconstruct sex in the age of #MeToo, searching for the “senses of sex” and advocating for a critical awareness of the role sex plays in our relationships with ourselves and others.
In 2020 we launched Black Outdoors: Innovations in the Poetics of Study, a new series edited by Sarah Jane Cervenak and J. Kameron Carter. Now that nine books are available in the series and two are shortly forthcoming, we invite you to learn more about the series and perhaps submit your own project.
Black Outdoors is dedicated to the study of alternative ecologies and socialities beyond logics of property, sovereignty, and propertied self-possession. It points to forms of social life exceeding the racial, sexual, gendered, economic, and neurological protocols of self- and civic administration and of the normatively human. Indeed, Black Outdoors attends to figurations of the outdoors as “black,” where blackness exceeds regulation.
Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker says, “I love when a series reconfigures our landscape in a profound way, putting work in relation that might have previously seemed disparate. From the beginning Black Outdoors has been just that kind of series, offering a home that expands what kind of writing is possible, calling more of it into being. Jay and Sarah have a genius for identifying brilliant writers and theorists who may not have previously met but are producing the conversation we all need.”
The series editors are seeking new projects for the series. It envisions books that imagine form itself as an occasion of reimagining language and relation without the enclosures dividing people from each other and from the earth and the universe. Black Outdoors invites a range of approaches to blackness and out(doors)ness, to what black outdoors as potential and possibility could mean to imaginations of being and relationality.
Sarah Jane Cervenak is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. J. Cameron Carter is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. Potential authors can contact the series editors directly.
Cervenak says, “We’re so excited about how the series has reached people, how different thinkers have engaged Black Outdoors as a way to think about relationality, about symbolic and actual places, about unenclosed Black living. Every book is a beautiful offering and we’re thankful to be part of the conversations they engender together.”
The published books in the series are all 50% off during our Fall Sale. Pick them up using coupon FALL21 through October 15, 2021.
Start off the semester strong by perusing our new September releases!
Drawing on oral and written testimonies from academics and students who have made complaints about harassment, bullying, and unequal working conditions at universities, Sara Ahmed examines what we can learn about power from those who complain about abuses of power in Complaint! Angela Y. Davis says, “Complaint! is precisely the text we need at this moment as we seek to understand and transform the institutional structures promoting racism and heteropatriarchy.”
The contributors to Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media, edited by Matthew Hockenberry, Nicole Starosielski, and Susan Zieger, document how media and logistics—the techniques of organizing and coordinating the movement of materials, bodies, and information—are co-constitutive and key to the circulation of information and culture.
In Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker, McKenzie Wark combines an autobiographical account of her relationship with Kathy Acker with her transgender reading of Acker’s writing to outline Acker’s philosophy of embodiment and its importance for theorizing the trans experience.
The contributors to Embodying Black Religions in Africa and Its Diasporas, edited by Yolanda Covington-Ward and Jeanette S. Jouili, investigate the complex intersections between the body, religious expression, and the construction and negotiation of social relationships and collective identities throughout the Black diaspora.
Sarah Jane Cervenak traces how Black artists and writers who create alternative spaces for Black people to gather free from those Enlightenment philosophies that presume Black people and land as given to enclosure and ownership in Black Gathering: Art, Ecology, Ungiven Life.
Andil Gosine revises understandings of queer desire in the Caribbean in Nature’s Wild, Love, Sex and the Law in the Caribbean, showing how the very concept of homosexuality in the Caribbean (and in the Americas more broadly) has been overdetermined by a colonially-influenced human/animal divide.
We invite you to watch fahima ife reading from their new book Maroon Choreography. In these musical poems, ife offers an enthralling examination of black fugitivity, and troubles what we think we know of history. Maroon Choreography is available now for 30% with discount code E21IFE.
In your acknowledgements, you write that Birthing Black Mothers was born alongside the birth of your own daughter. How does this personal, lived experience inform your work?
Perhaps all scholarly projects are born of the intersections of the experiential and the intellectual, even as academic life hasn’t always made it possible to name these intersections. I’ve always been deeply interested in how scholarly interests shift, move, and change in response to the conditions of our lives. The questions that we pose are fundamentally altered by the fact that we are embodied beings, that we contend with the world and its complexities.
In this project, I name the fact that the book was born with my daughter, or more specifically, born in the weeks before her birth, as I navigated life as a Black perinatal subject. I became very curious about the hospital, the birthing center, the obstetrician, the midwife, the doula, the prenatal check-up, and the lactation consultant. I wanted to understand how those spaces and actors operated, and how they constructed me as a Black woman patient (and how I represented myself as such) in a moment where those spaces were increasingly responsive to—or supposedly responsive to—the “crisis” in Black maternal health. I wanted to understand what it meant to birth in a moment when the very fact of my birthing (or soon-to-be birthing) body was saturated with a different kind of political meaning. Black perinatal bodies are newly imagined not as pathological but in need of education, information, support, and compassion. My project came to life as I experienced the compassionate—and, as I argue in my book, not unproblematic—maternal health institutions that imagined my body and my daughter’s body as distinctly in need of support.
You speak to the cultural impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in your introduction and throughout your book. What is the relationship between Birthing Black Mothers and BLM?
Even as BLM is often described—and, at times, criticized—for placing Black boys and Black men at the center of its conception of anti-Black violence, I make a different argument in Birthing Black Mothers. I contend that Black mothers have become a central icon of the movement for Black life. At times, Black mothers are described as representing anticipated loss, as preparing themselves (and their children) for anti-Black trauma that is to unfold in the future. Other times, Black mothers are culturally invoked to make visible the trauma of losing a child, and thus become synonymous with grief, trauma, and loss.
With the new cultural visibility of longstanding Black maternal health disparities, birthing Black mothers and perinatal Black bodies are now imagined—in perhaps the most literal way—to be a vessel of Black life. Black mothers are thus figured as standing at the intersections of multiple forms of state violence: they are guardians of their children’s lives, and they also experience medical racism, obstetric violence, and birth injustice that makes Black life precarious from its earliest moments. In this moment, anti-Black death is understood to take the form only of the police officer’s fist, baton, or chokehold, and to take the form of the obstetrician, the hospital, or the unwanted C-section. Black wombs are thus imagined as ground zero of crisis, as spaces under siege that require care and protection to ensure the viability of Black life.
In your third chapter, you focus on three celebrities engaged in redefining what you term “Black maternal aesthetics.” What was your inspiration for centering this chapter on Serena Williams, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, and Michelle Obama?
I was drawn to how this celebrity trio has rewritten scripts about Black motherhood, Black female friendship, and what Claudia Rankine calls “Black excellence.” My chapter is inspired by so many scholars who have written on Williams, Knowles-Carter, and Obama: like Rankine’s essay, or Brittney Cooper’s work on Michelle Obama. My own endeavor was to think about these three figures together, to consider their friendships, collaborations, and investments in championing each other. I particularly wanted to emphasize how the trio centers Black female friendship as a Black maternal ethic, as a distinct form of relationality that Black motherhood renders possible. This friendship has also been forged through their shared commitment to reshaping narratives about maternal affect, postpartum bodies, and the sheer demands of mothering. This kind of Black maternal friendship offers a very different public performance than another contemporary, hypervisible public performance of Black maternal relationality: the Mothers of the Movement. Described by Valerie Castile as the “fucked-up mothers club,” the group—including Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden, Lucy McBath, Gwen Carr, and Geneva Reed-Veal—is a political affiliation forged through shared trauma. Their shared losses might be understood as born both from the death—or murder—of a child, and from the state inaction that marked many of these cases, including non-indictments and not-guilty verdicts. Knowles-Carter, Obama, and Williams offer a markedly different performance of Black maternal friendship, one rooted not in shared loss but in Black maternal pleasure, glamour, and playfulness, even as the collective—particularly Knowles—often operates in solidarity with Mothers of the Movement.
Your second chapter is dedicated to exploring the effect of women of color doulas and other birth-workers, whose personal care, you argue, is a form of political work. You write that much of this doula work is currently funded by the state, though you remain less than optimistic about the state’s support of and investment in Black life. Can you shed light on this seeming paradox?
The book’s second chapter (which is actually the first one I wrote, and perhaps where my biggest political and intellectual attachments remain) tracks my critical ambivalence about the paraprofessional feminist birth economy, particularly the work of doulas. I study a moment when doulas—particularly women of color doulas—are hailed as precisely the innovation that will save Black mothers’ lives. And it is now—increasingly—the state that insists on the necessity of doulas, with some states even working to cover doulas through Medicaid, and to recruit and train doulas.
Doulas are, as I argue in this chapter, outliers in the feminist birth economy. Unlike midwives—the birth professionals they are most often associated with—doulas are unlicensed and unregulated, and their trainings vary tremendously, as does their sense of what kind of labor birth work is, and what is required to perform this labor. This variation is powerful, and as I write in the book, it allows doulas to subvert and interrupt the norms of institutionalized medicine in ways that challenge the stronghold of medical capitalism and its logics of birthing temporalities that all too often result in unwanted (or unneeded) C-sections and other forms of birth violence. Yet it is a complicated moment when the state invests in paraprofessional birth work as the solution to Black maternal mortality, and when it insists that it is low-paid and heterogeneously trained birth workers (who, again, I emphasize are united by a deep ethical, political, and oftentimes spiritual commitment to the transformative qualities of birth) who are newly responsible for Black life.
You push back against the rhetoric of crisis which currently dominates discussion about Black mothers, converting them into “a political category synonymous with pain.” And in your conclusion, you encourage Black feminists to “freedom-dream.” What does this mean to you, exactly, and what alternative rhetorical frameworks do you envision?
My work has generally been interested in how Black women are rhetorically invoked to perform symbolic work for a host of actors. I have traced what Black women symbolize for academic feminism, for Black feminist theory, for the state, for hospitals, and for birth workers. In all of these cases, Black women become different kind of symbols: of pathology, trauma, grief, pain, and brokenness. I am also deeply interested in how Black mothers make themselves into symbols of certain sorts to become politically legible, to have their/our needs and demands heard and rendered legible. My call to “freedom-dream” is a plea for Black feminists to refuse to be seduced by the moment we are in, one where Black mothers are thought to simply need compassion. This moment feels appealing because Black mothers are not imagined as producing the fiscal and moral downfall of the state, but instead as requiring information, support, and education. But the moment is part of this much longer history of transforming Black mothers from complex people with heterogeneous demands and desires, into symbolic currency for a host of political movements which all too rarely hear or honor Black women’s needs. My call for freedom-dreaming is for Black feminist interventions that refuse the logics of the present, even as they can feel alluring.
Don’t miss all our exciting new releases in August!
In three long-form poems and a lyrical essay, fahima ife speculates in Maroon Choreographyon the afterlives of Black fugitivity, unsettling the historic knowledge of it while moving inside the ongoing afterlives of those people who disappeared themselves into rural spaces beyond the reach of slavery.
Rachel Zolf activates the last three lines of a poem by Jewish Nazi Holocaust survivor Paul Celan—“No one / bears witness for the / witness”—to theorize the poetics and im/possibility of witnessing in No One’s Witness.
In Amkoullel, the Fula Boy, Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ—one of the towering figures in the literature of twentieth-century Francophone Africa—tells in striking detail the story of his youth, which was set against inter-ethnic conflict and the arrival and installation of French colonialism.
In The Politics of Decolonial InvestigationWalter D. Mignolo provides a sweeping examination of how colonialty has operated around the world in its myriad forms between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries while calling for a decolonial politics that would delink from all forms of Western knowledge.
Laurence Coderre explores the material culture of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Newborn Socialist Things to show how it paved the way for rampant commodification and consumption in contemporary China.
Carolyn Hardin offers a new way of understanding arbitrage—the trading practice that involves buying assets in one market at a cheap price and immediately selling them in another market for a profit—as a means of showing how its reliance upon taking on risk is fundamental to financial markets in Capturing Finance.
Monica Huerta draws on her experiences growing up in her family’s Mexican restaurants and her life as an academic in Magical Habits to sketch out habits of living that allow us to consider what it means to live with history as we are caught up in it and how those histories bear on our capacities to make sense of our lives.
The contributors to Long Term, edited by Scott Herring and Lee Wallace, use the tension between the popular embrace and legalization of same-sex marriage and the queer critique of homonormativity as an opportunity to examine the myriad forms of queer commitments and their durational aspect.
In Domestic Contradictions Priya Kandaswamy brings together two crucial moments in welfare history—the advent of the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—to show how they each targeted Black women through negative stereotyping and normative assumptions about gender, race, and citizenship.
In Policing ProtestPaul A. Passavant explores how the policing of protest in the United States has become increasingly hostile since the late 1990s, moving away from strategies that protect protestors toward militaristic practices designed to suppress legal protests.
In A Black Intellectual’s Odyssey Martin Kilson—the first tenured African American professor at Harvard—takes readers on a fascinating journey from his upbringing in a small Pennsylvania mill town to his experiences as an undergraduate to pursuing graduate study at Harvard before spending his entire career there as a faculty member.
In Whiteness Interrupted, Marcus Bell presents a revealing portrait of white teachers in majority Black schools to outline how white racial identity is constructed based on localized interactions and the ways whiteness takes a different form in predominantly Black spaces.
Jennifer C. Nash examines how the figure of the “Black mother” has become a powerful political category synonymous with crisis, showing how they are often rendered into one-dimensional symbols of tragic heroism and the ground zero of Black life in Birthing Black Mothers.
Transnational Feminist Itineraries, edited by Ashwini Tambe and Millie Thayer, demonstrates the key contributions of transnational feminist theory and practice to analyzing and contesting authoritarian nationalism and the extension of global corporate power.
In Reimagining Social Medicine from the South Abigail H. Neely explores social medicine’s possibilities and limitations at one of its most important origin sites: the Pholela Community Health Centre (PCHC) in South Africa.
Jennifer L. Morgan is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University, author of Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, and coeditor of Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in America. In her new book, Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, she draws on the lived experiences of enslaved African women in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries to reveal the contours of early modern notions of trade, race, and commodification in the Black Atlantic.
You open your book by pointing out the change in attitudes and legal codes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which increasingly sought to fix categories of difference through the concept of race. What significance does this have for our understanding of early American history?
By rooting our understanding of the development of race and racial hierarchy in the sixteenth century, I am arguing that early Americanists must take a longer view on the conceptual landscape that leads to the connection between race, slavery, and colonial settlement, one that precedes the formal entry of the English into the Atlantic world. We have recently been challenged to think about the origins of American History as rooted in 1619 rather than in 1776. I fully support this shift, but also want us to take account of all that precedes 1619. The circulation of people, ideas, and texts about race and what will become hereditary racial slavery begins in Europe in the fifteenth century. Those first Africans sold into North America came from first Portuguese, then English enslavers—the latter carrying authorization from Dutch and Italian merchants. In other words, the ideological and material structures that produce both slavery and race are deeply entangled in the medieval and early modern period. We need to be cognizant of such histories.
In your attempts to change the way we think about history, you argue against the use of the word “condition” in relation to enslavement, opting instead for the word “predicament.” Can you say more about this stance?
This is an intervention that I learned from the historian Vincent Brown. He argues, and I concur, that the word ‘predicament’ offers us a way to resituate the temporal and agential aspects of enslavement. A condition is fixed. It is a position in which one is settled. A predicament is a problem. It suggests that the person who is caught in the predicament is both aware of its constrictions and actively works against them. There is a crucial shift in imagination and analysis that accompanies the shift in language. When we identify a person as “a slave,” we have characterized their condition—it is timeless and is something that has happened to them. When we identify a person as enslaved, we clarify that someone has done something to them. There is an agent here who has caused the predicament, and in identifying the agent, we can imagine both the intentionality of the enslaver and the probability that the woman or man who has been enslaved both understands who has done this to them and is committed to escaping the confines of that predicament by any means at their disposal.
There is an intentional push, throughout your book, to recognize enslaved Black women and men as thinkers who not only experienced their predicaments but assessed them as well. What significance does this hold for scholars of slavery, the Early Atlantic, and Black Studies more broadly?
It has been at the forefront of scholarship on slavery and the early Black Atlantic for some time to understand Black women and men as historical subjects. To not reduce them to one-dimensional victims or revolutionaries, to understand the complexity of their personhood as we work to construct the processes by which they defined themselves and built new communities. My own effort to name Black women as thinkers, as persons who brought analytic power to the uneven terrain on which they found themselves, is part of that effort. It is a gesture on my part that is rooted in my concern that one-dimensionality is part of the afterlife of slavery, a part of the ongoing problem of racism and racial hierarchies. If we can’t see Black people as complex historical actors from the distance of time, I fear that we will always be mired in the violence of misrecognition, in the structures that reduce Black life and render people discardable.
In the vein of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, you argue for recognizing the simultaneity of racism and capitalism. It seems that the trade in women, too, is central to your project. How do Black women’s bodies figure into the processes of commerce and commodification? What do we learn by centering Black women’s experiences?
My work has always been organized in part around the problem of reproductive potential. What does it mean when your body can, even if it doesn’t, produce a child? What does it mean when the structure into which that child could be born is one that extracts the child as a commodity, not as a member of a family? By centering women, we get to what I believe is the heart of the system of racial slavery, the claim that the body is a site of commodification and the production of race as a legible sign of provenance. I am committed to thinking through Black women’s experiences of enslavement and freedom in the early Atlantic world both because they were historical subjects who are infinitely worthy of our attention as scholars and readers of history, and also because they enable us to make visible some of the ideological processes by which the entire history of capitalism was subtended by the hereditary mark of enslavability.
One of your major interventions is in examining numeracy and race together. At the same time, you note the presence of emotions—like wrath—hidden underneath the numeric, rationalizing logics of slavery. What do you wish your readers to gain from thinking about both numbers and feelings?
We often turn to numerical data—demographic or economic records—to offer ballast for historical narratives that are about emotions without recognizing that the separation between the two is in fact an artifact of modern knowledge production. In the history of slavery and the slave trade, the compilation of numerical data is an active process of obfuscating the violence of racial slavery. Human beings get situated in the historical archive only as data points, as evidence of economy, in part because racial slavery depends upon the fiction that some people are rationally enslaveable. It is not an accident that writing the history of enslaved people poses profound archival challenges—Black people were not meant to be historical subjects. By examining numbers and feelings in the same frame we move closer to understanding both the violence of such abstractions and the emotions—and liberatory possibilities—that such abstractions obscure.
Looking for some summer reading? Check out the great new titles we have coming out in June!
Jennifer L. Morgan draws on the lived experiences of enslaved African women in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries in Reckoning with Slavery to reveal the contours of early modern notions of trade, race, and commodification in the Black Atlantic.
In Decolonizing Memory, Jill Jarvis examines the crucial role that writers and artists have played in cultivating historical memory and nurturing political resistance in Algeria, showing how literature offers the unique ability to reckon with colonial violence and to render the experiences of those marginalized by the state.
The contributors to Beyond Man, edited by An Yountae and Eleanor Craig, reckon with the colonial and racial implications of the philosophy of religion’s history by staging a conversation between it and Black, Indigenous, and decolonial studies.
In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Martin Savransky draws on the pragmatic pluralism of William James and the ontological turn in anthropology to propose a “pluralistic realism”—an understanding of ontology in which at any given time the world is both one and many, ongoing and unfinished.
In How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind, La Marr Jurelle Bruce ponders the presence of “madness” in black literature, music, and performance since the early twentieth century, showing how artist ranging from Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill to Nina Simone and Dave Chappelle activate madness as content, form, aesthetic, strategy, philosophy, and energy in an enduring black radical tradition.
Việt Lê examines contemporary art in Cambodia and Việt Nam in Return Engagements to trace the entwinement of militarization, trauma, diaspora, and modernity in Southeast Asian art.
In Images of Beirut, Hatim El-Hibri explores how the creation and circulation of images has shaped the urban spaces and cultural imaginaries of Beirut, showing how images can be used to consolidate or destabilize regimes of power.
Editors Diana Paton and Matthew J. Smith combine more than one hundred classic and lesser-known texts in The Jamaica Reader to present a panoramic history of the country—from its pre-contact Indigenous origins to the present—and provide an unparalleled look at Jamaica’s history, culture, and politics.
In Colonial Debts, Rocío Zambrana uses the current political-economic moment in Puerto Rico to outline how debt functions as both an apparatus that strengthens neoliberalism and the island’s colonial relation to the United States.
The contributors to Words and Worlds, edited by Veena Das and Didier Fassin, examine the state of politics and the political imaginary within contemporary societies by taking up the everyday words such as democracy, revolution, and populism that we use to understand the political present.
A concise, easy-to-understand reference book, the revised and updated second edition of the bestselling All about Your Eyes tells you what you need to know to care for your eyes, various eye diseases and treatments, and what to expect from your eye doctor. The editors, Sharon Fekrat, Tanya S. Glaser, and Henry L. Feng are all physicians at the world-renown Duke Eye Center.
In an indispensable guide for all ethnographers, the editors of Experimenting with Ethnography, Andrea Ballestero and Brit Ross Winthereik, collect twenty-one essays that offer concrete suggestions for thinking about and doing ethnographic research and writing.
The contributors to Sound Alignments, edited by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Paola Iovene, and Kaley Mason, explore the myriad forms of popular music in Asia during the Cold War, showing how it took on new meanings and significance as it traveled across the region and forged and challenged alliances, revolutions, and countercultures.
Shaoling Ma examines late Qing China’s political upheavals and modernizing energies through the problem of the dynamics between new media technologies such as the telegraph the discursive representations of them in The Stone and the Wireless.
Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices, an arts collective that collaborates with underrepresented communities to create performances, exhibits, and media that explore difficult social issues. Her new book Right Here, Right Now, part of the project Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice, collects the powerful, first-person stories of dozens of men on death rows across the country.
Right Here, Right Now is born out of the collective you founded, Hidden Voices, and, more specifically, out of the Hidden Voices project “Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice.” Can you talk about how the “Serving Life” project came to be?
One of the men living on death row read an article about us and gave it to the psychologist who oversaw programs. That psychologist, who was very insightful and therapeutically oriented, emailed me and asked if we would develop a project for the men. At the time we were in the final stages of a statewide project called None of the Above: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. I said if he could wait six months, we would come develop a project with the men. And I invited him to one of the performances.
Late that fall we met with six men and together worked through the “Hidden Voices Process,” the stakeholder collaboration model we’ve developed over the years. By the end of two sessions, we had a pretty good idea of the outcomes everyone wanted to see, the outputs we might create together, and the outreach—who needs to speak and who needs to listen?
All these years later, we are still working off that initial visioning. The most important outcome the men identified for the larger community was: “We want them to know we aren’t monsters.” And I think that reality becomes very clear once one reads these stories.
Other “Serving Life” initiatives have taken the form of live performances or visual art exhibitions. What do you hope will be the effect of circulating these stories in book form?
As part of every Hidden Voices project, we create a story cycle: a series of extremely short first-person monologues that bring the listener on a journey through the many perspectives surrounding a pressing social issue. These story cycles can be read aloud by any group of people, sitting in a circle in a classroom or a church or in a breakout at a conference. Each individual story offers a particular insight into the issue at hand; for the Right Here, Right Now story cycle, each story points to a lived experience with what we might label racism, family violence, hunger, failed educational policies, police misconduct, housing instability, and more. But the men who shared these stories don’t look at their experiences through this lens of conceptual labeling; for them, the stories are simply life as it is lived, whether funny or violent, sweet or troubling.
A most insightful colleague, Jayne Ifekwunigwe, participated in a reading and asked if I’d ever thought of publishing the stories. Gisela Fosado, the Editorial Director at Duke Press, asked if I could find enough stories to fill a book. So, I combed through pieces men had written, recordings of meetups, notes from phone calls, stacks of letters. I planned to choose 100 stories, but then I settled on 99. That was a number that felt unfinished, and I wanted to leave the reader with the sense that there was yet another story waiting to be told. For me, that story is the story the families hope and pray for, the story of the day these men walk through the prison doors and return to their communities.
By sharing the stories in book form, I hope the voices will reach into classrooms and book clubs, into church classes and civic discussions. I hope the stories will lend momentum to the growing movement toward abolishing the death penalty, ending life in prison without parole, and re-visioning so many of the inhumane policies and practices that prevent families and communities from healing from violence
You write, “Absent a specific image of the speaker, we more easily and viscerally allow the deeper truth of the story to penetrate.” These anonymous stories are particularly heartbreaking because they do become universalizable. In your story selection process what, if anything, had to be left out?
So many poignant, funny, and heart-breaking stories were left on the cutting room floor. I decided the best way to share these stories was to bring the reader on a chronological journey from infancy to execution, so the structure dictated the selection. I wanted to make sure each story was just that: a story, a personal experience, not an intellectual reflection on an issue, however passionately argued. I wanted to retain the original speaker’s “voice,” the feel of their authentic dialogue even if the story was only a few paragraphs excerpted from an hour-long conversation. I wanted the reader to feel this human being, his story, his palpable life.
Each story gives insight into a specific aspect of a much larger system and helps us understand how we create violence in our society, how we can heal the harm already caused by violence, and how we can disrupt the systems that perpetuate harm. Again, you could go back through each story and label it as “about” racism, or addiction, or under-resourced schools, or the lack of mental health facilities, and I did exactly that during the years of working with these stories. But those labels don’t offer the kinds of pathways toward embodied understanding that actual lived experiences do. Lived experience is intimate, authentic, specific. It invites us to enter another world, experience it as our own, and leave with a new, richer understanding.
You describe both “Serving Life” and the specific narratives in Right Here, Right Now as a kind of call-and-response. The book is the call; the response is up to the reader. Have any responses to the “Serving Life” project stood out to you?
We wanted to create a dialogue between public audiences and these most hidden members of our communities. But at the time, there were no phones on death row; the men were only allowed one 15-minute phone call a year, in December. Family members would drive across the state to be in the room when that call came, just to hear their loved one’s voice. The only means of communication was writing letters.
So, finding ways to connect was challenging, which is what led to the idea of a call and response. After every performance, every reading of the stories, and at each exhibit installation, we would ask the audience to write a response to the men. We would collect the letters, copy them, and send them back inside.
Here is one comment that has stayed with me. There are many hundreds of others:
Gentlemen, thank you for your story, your vulnerability, your willingness to remind ignorant and selfish people like me how beautiful each and every life is. You have taught me so much with your words, and your legacy will stay with me for the rest of my life. Your stories transformed my understanding of prison, death row, and life. The power and witness of your stories have resonated in this room. . . . You are not invisible. I feel so honored to know your story, and I will never forget.
Society renders death row inmates invisible. But context provided in the Afterword by Timothy B. Tyson about very visible instances of systemic injustice and anti-racist protest in 2020 connects the lives of the storytellers directly to our moment. Has the shape of the “Serving Life” project changed at all as the contemporary moment casts new light on old problems?
I don’t think society renders these speakers invisible. I think there’s an intentional misdirection of our attention away from these institutions and those who live there. That’s why outside access is so severely limited and facilities are typically placed far from the public eye. Out of sight and out of mind. It’s better if we don’t question the location and design of these facilities, the use of unpaid labor, the dangerous and overcrowded housing, the systemic injustices, the lack of decent legal representation, the reality of innocent people living inside, the children we’ve sentenced to die.
It’s a form of misdirection, a pointing away from these unremittingly unhealthy and stressful environments—unhealthy not only for those living there, but for those working there. It’s no surprise that correctional officers have the shortest lifespan of any police. We have managed to create a system that damages the most damaged. As one friend said, “You can’t kill all the wounded people.” And yet, we seem to be trying.
So, this moment—right here, right now. It’s an incredible time for these voices and stories to be published. For the first time, in my life anyway, there is a broad willingness to consider and question our role as the only Western country that kills its own, to wonder whether we need to be #1 in the world in incarceration. The most common response I hear to these stories is, “I’ve never thought about this before.” Even people who drive by a prison every day will say they never wondered who was there and whether there was another, better option. Now, people are starting to wonder. I think the civil rights movements of 2019 and 2020 have been instrumental in forcing us to look directly at some of the realities that shape our justice system. And once we begin to see, we can’t unsee. But we can find our way to a new vision of actual justice and a more humane, compassionate, and healthy society.
There is a conscious choice in Right Here, Right Now to privilege inmate voices rather than critical or scholarly analysis of the death penalty and the American carceral system. In the Hidden Voices model, building relationships with real people through honoring their stories is the first step. What might the next step entail?
Sharing these stories helps undermine our unhealthy “rush to judgment” as Jason Flom puts it. We seem to have two frameworks at play in our society, one that views these people as inherently broken, flawed and irredeemable—in other words expendable. But there’s also a radically different framework, a more experientially-based view, that understands humans, like all living organisms, can heal and grow. Indeed, must heal and grow to survive. Human beings are complex systems of constant change; change may be what we most fundamentally are. This framework believes we should put that natural flow to work for us.
We are innately creative, curious, and hard-wired to explore. Trying to shut down those innate impulses is an unwinnable strategy. We need to look for ways to increase and strengthen healing and growth by supporting relationships—between families and their loved ones, between those living inside, between those of us on the outside and those currently living behind bars. We need to increase opportunities for emotional healing, for learning and exploration. There are other carceral systems where correctional officers serve as mentors to prisoners; they eat together, recreate together; work on life goals together. There are systems where prisoners (including those who have been convicted of murder) live together in group housing and learn new ways of relating to their environment, their families, their own self-care. Even here in the US, some of the most successful programs for men living inside prison have been programs where the men tend other living creatures, from training service dogs to rehabbing horses to gardening. In other words, we need to ask how our natural tendency toward growth, healing, and change can be allowed to flourish and thereby strengthen all our communities.
Because, isolating people into prisons doesn’t just affect those who live and work there—it affects their children, parents, grandparents and grandchildren, their neighbors, teachers, faith leaders, the health of community economies, and on and on. Keeping such an unhealthy, stressful, damaging system alive costs us all.
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In this inaugural Duke University Press issue—the first of three on the journal’s foundational concepts of “liquidity,” “blackness,” and “aesthetics”—leading voices in Black studies and beyond reflect on the conceptual and practical possibilities and shortcomings of Black liquidity. Conceived as a musical ensemble and framed by a lyrical history of the liquid blackness research group’s method, practice, and praxis, the issue gathers the work of theorists and practitioners spanning different modes of intellectual inquiry and champions experimentalism as a theoretical and artistic practice. In doing so, the issue unflinchingly addresses the entanglement between race, capital, and the constitution of the modern subject as well as the jurisgenerativity of liquid aesthetic practices and their unruly archives—all within the context of what Toni Morrison described as the liquidity of the Black arts.
liquid blackness, edited by Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer, seeks to carve out a place for aesthetic theory and the most radical agenda of Black studies to come together in productive ways, with the goal of attending to the aesthetic work of Blackness and the political work of form. In this way, the journal develops innovative approaches to address points of convergence between the exigencies of Black life and the many slippery ways in which Blackness is encountered in contemporary sonic and visual culture. The journal showcases a variety of scholarly modes, including audio-visual work and experimental and traditional essays. It aims to explore who can do theory (scholars, artists, activists, individuals, and ensembles), how theory can be done (in image, writing, archiving, curating, social activism), and what a Black aesthetic object is (“high”/“low” art, sound and image, practice and praxis).