Seven days, a handful of books, and one black square

She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not“. Nella Larsen, Quicksand (1928).

▪️◾◼️◾▪️ Seven black women authors who have been writing about systemic racism, police brutality, inequality, and colonialism – for years. For years, we have been aware those authors existed, we have been assigned them in school, we have written papers about them, we have read them for university – but have we really r e a d them? How has this changed the way we live and act on what we know? Or has this just been another instance of performative allyship and virtue signalling?

Three questions and one black square.

She held the paper in her hand for a long time, trying to follow the reasoning by which that thin ragged boy had become in the eyes of a reporter a ‘burly Negro.’ And she decided that it all depended on where you sat how these things looked. If you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like. You couldn’t because the Negro was never an individual. He was a threat, or an animal, or a curse, or a blight, or a joke.” ― Ann Petry, The Street (1946)

▪️◾◼️◾▪️ Activism does not end with a public profession of virtue through a trending hashtag propelling us from outrage to outrage, and then back to a harmless picture of our lunch. But activism also makes a moral claim and has a measure of performance inasmuch as it requires us to step up and shout for what we consider the right thing. It’s perhaps easy to get caught up in a hall of mirrors where everything is dismissed as mere performance, or where everyone is ultimately signalling their virtue by pointing out the virtue signalling of others. It’s difficult to know precisely where noise or silence become betrayal or complicity, particularly when we are constantly required by the gods of algorithm to perform our outrage online – and forget the perhaps more important noise we must make outside social media, in our day-to-day lives. Loud self-flagellation, particularly when fuelled by fear of cancellation, can be uncannily similar to self-congratulation. Silence can mean time spent for serious thought or consideration; it can also be a manifestation of the fear of being called out, of making a mistake, of losing followers; or it can simply be a strategy to look cool or dispassionate or informed in the eyes of one’s audience. Either way, silence is also a performance. More important than its cause are its effects. Remaining silent can be as performative as speaking out; posting a black square can be as strongly an instance of virtue signalling as taking the square down; posting a harmless photo of our lunch can be as much a product of calculation and self-presentation as posting a photo of a book by a black author (let alone seven books…). A flood of black squares can be damaging, counterproductive, and empty. But it poses a question that can be made to move beyond mere self-presentation and the blaming finger pointed at praise. Is a person’s authentically experienced outrage inherently interwoven with subconscious concerns about her reputation? How genuinely do we thread the line between the feigned righteousness intended to make us appear superior, the authentic expression of moral outrage, and the desire to be seen positively by others? Are we forever stuck in-between? And what does ‘authentic’ even mean in a time where what seems to matter most is an appeal to the approval of the widest possible audience through homogenization?

Four questions and a [blank] square.

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see.” Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

▪️◾◼️◾▪️ Are we, in a way or another, always ‘virtue signalling’ – be that when we remain silent, or when we post a photo of our lunch, or seven photos of books, or hit publish on a long-winded, rambling, badly-written post like this one? Probably. In a certain sense, though, this question is misguided. Far more important is to know whether (and how) our expressions of outrage (or our silence, and what lies behind it) lead to substantial change in the way we live; whether (and how) they can be a gateway to (un)learning, making personal sacrifices, and acting on what we know. Asserting a moral claim is often exposed as a way of conforming to the opinion of an audience; and authenticity is often reduced to (and commodified as) a (somewhat feigned) indifference to any form of approval, which is something seen as positive and “subversive” even when (or precisely because) it does not challenge us. We are so further down the path of normalization, that the mere act of speaking up against racism is, more often than not, dismissed by the (sometimes unconscious) enforcers of the status quo as ‘self-righteousness’. My question to them is: can one counter a moral claim without, at the same time, asserting another? I wonder if it is too self-righteous of us to consider self-righteous the ones who proudly accuse others of self-righteousness. Or should we simply call them uptight racists?

One snarky comment and a flood of black squares.

I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said.” Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1970)

▪️◾◼️◾▪️ It’s easy to get caught up in the endless cycle of claiming a cookie for spotting the Cookie Monster in the room (spoiler alert: it’s me!). Far more difficult is to unlearn our bigotry, to affect real change, engage in tough conversations, and amplify the voices of others. To understand that this narrative is not centred on us, that it does not aim at our “self-improvement” as individuals, but rather at the liberation of black people and the dismantlement of white supremacy. To understand that this – this thing we are having right now, you and me, as we write and read and form a conversation – this is not about praise or “self-improvement” or “our feelings”, because it is not about you and me, as individuals; and, at the same time, it is all about you and me, because it is a collective struggle – this thing we are having right now, you and me, and seven black women authors, and a long line extending into the future, a radical line which some people often mistake for a circle.

Seven black women authors and a Geometry lesson.

I ain’t got nothing ‘gainst my ole Miss, except she sold my mother from me. And a boy ain’t nothin’ without his mother. I forgive her, but I never forget her, and never expect to. But if she were the best woman on earth I would rather have my freedom than belong to her.” Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Iola Leroy: Shadows Uplifted (1892)

▪️◾◼️◾▪️ Seven black women authors who have been writing about systemic racism, police brutality, inequality, and colonialism – for years. Have we really been r e a d i n g what they have to say? Can art (and, more particularly, books) help us to change reality? And if so, how? It’s easy to instrumentalize books as gateways to white saviourism, self-improvement tools, or emotional palliatives that distract us from the groundwork of dismantling racist systems. Rather than using books as emotional tools to expunge our guilt (or to make our reading lists look cool and diverse), we should perhaps try to make a more active cognitive effort to make the experiences of others imaginatively available to us through the books we read (and the art we make). Rather than making us feel somewhat cleansed after finishing a book, our reading experience should leave us ready to change and be changed – sometimes, in radical ways. Art is not out there to educate white people, nor to make them feel good about themselves. Art should not be instrumentalized, or be taken as a means to an end. But: Art is something that crosses a limit. And this can have a powerful value in and for itself.

When a square means a circle but then becomes a line.

It isn’t a circle–it is simply a long line–as in geometry, you know, one that reaches into infinity. And because we cannot see the end–we also cannot see how it changes. And it is very odd by those who see the changes–who dream, who will not give up–are called idealists…and those who see only the circle we call them the “realists”!” Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (1959)

▪️◾◼️◾▪️ And art is a leap of faith. It’s a way of crossing a limit, a way of drawing a line, of dissembling and reassembling, a lifetime work, a way of going beyond one’s life and time, a line running to a vanishing point. Antiracism is a lifetime work, too. It makes us uncomfortable and defensive, and it holds us accountable. It can even make us rethink what authenticity means, and make us engage differently with the question of what art is (or should be) – and where to locate its vanishing point. Somewhere down this line, I know I will eventually have to eat my words, own up, fix it, do the work. This is a quest, an exploration, a leap into a burning house, a lifetime work.

Seven days, seven voices, one black square.

We were not friends; such a thing was discouraged. We were never to trust each other. This was like a motto repeated to us by our parents; it was a part of my upbringing, like a form of good manners: You cannot trust these people, my father would say to me, the very words the other children’s parents were saying to them, perhaps even at the same time. That “these people” were ourselves, that this insistence on mistrust of others—that people who looked so very much like each other, who shared a common history of suffering and humiliation and enslavement, should be taught to mistrust each other, even as children, is no longer a mystery to me. The people we should naturally have mistrusted were beyond our influence completely; what we needed to defeat them, to rid ourselves of them, was something far more powerful than mistrust. To mistrust each other was just one of many feelings we had for each other, all of them the opposite of love, all of them standing in the place of love.” Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother (1996)

This is my leap of faith.


Black-Form No. 8 (1964), by Mark Rothko, National Gallery of Art▪️

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