who owns the black experience?: decolonizing theory & how the academy commodifies black life
By Hari Ziyad
November 21, 2017
Editor’s Note: *I AIN’T THE FIRST PERSON TO EVER THINK OF THIS SHIT.
To be Black is to live outside of the ways the world makes sense of itself. Outside of the gender binary, or how men and women are forced to occupy distinct roles, but Black men aren’t given the power patriarchy affords to manhood and Black women aren’t afforded protection. Outside of age, or how childhood is assigned innocence and adulthood assigned agency, but Black children aren’t allowed to be innocent and Black adults are denied self-determination. Outside of linear time, or how we are taught there is a before and after—a unidirectional cause and effect—for every experience, but when we talk about the problems facing Black people we are never expected to imagine life before or after slavery, and how whiteness is responsible for the continuation of that brutality in different forms today.
I am not the first person to ever come to this understanding, but I have made it my mission to explore the ways we can reframe this exclusion from how the world makes sense to reject the violence of gender and age specifically. In response to different articles where I work through these topics, however, I have been accused of plagiarizing ideas, almost always by academics, regardless of how many times I note within the piece that I am simply attempting to move an already ongoing conversation forward, or how many others I cite who are doing related work. It is almost as if all work within their area of study must funnel through the scholars making the accusation, or else it is not legitimate—or worse, criminal.
There are a few possible reasons for why this has happened multiple times. Firstly, it could be the case that I am actually taking the work of others. And though there is no question that I have ever consciously lifted anyone’s words, it is undoubtable that I have come across an idea or so in passing that my brain didn’t assign to a particular person or piece, and it informed my thinking on the subject in the future.
I try to proactively address this problem by never implying an idea is “mine,” and by always at least referencing those who have had the biggest impact on what I write about, because there is never a case where my work isn’t impacted by someone else.
Secondly, the academy obviously awards students for being “the first” to think about an idea in a particular way. The uniqueness of the approach to their dissertation is both how they are judged to be accepted into graduate programs in the first place and how they pass their exams. If academics have gone their whole career banking on their special snowflake status in a particular area of expertise, anything that challenges their ownership over a way of thinking will be a threat—and in the case of their financial prospects, quite literally.
Lastly, Black people, and particularly those of us with intersecting identities like Black women and queer folks, already don’t get credit for our work, making the experience of not being credited once again, for legitimate reasons or not, feel like just another slap in the face. It is this third possibility that points to the necessity of “figur[ing] out another system of labor and imagination that is not individualistic or commodified,” as my friend and colleague Jess Krug explained in a private conversation.
The current capitalistic system of labor assigns ownership over the Black experience in ways that are directly born out of colonization, and thus can never truly liberate Black people.
After writing about the necessity of thinking of Black populations as Indigenous (displaced and/or colonized people), a former Facebook friend claimed I “stole” and “spit back out [her] words and work from years ago,” pointing to a 2015 Tumblr post on the same topic. Not only have I not been on Tumblr for years and had never heard of the obscure post (it had 325 notes), what fascinated me was the fact that I had mentioned in an editor’s note at the very beginning of my article that I owed these ideas to conversations I had with my friend Preston Anderson. So it wasn’t just that she thought I was trying to pass off ideas that weren’t mine, it was that she felt no one else should ever come to these conclusions without first going through her.
I try to come into every conversation with the understanding that Black people aren’t unintelligent.
What I mean is that we are fully capable of analyzing our situations and reacting accordingly. Oftentimes the things we are pathologized for, like acting out in school, are logical responses to the violence of the institutions we are forced to suffer. I believe that Black people, even and especially those who have not received academic training, are not only likely to come up with profound theories about their own lives, but to do so in ways that are frequently more effective than theorizing from those whom white institutions have sanctioned to think about those experiences.
Although it is true that I have learned a lot from the likes of Fanon, Wilderson and Spillers (and also true that I cite them), most of what I have learned has been from my grandma, my mama, my cousins and the niggas with whom I grew up. Academic theory has only given me the tools to articulate these lessons in a language that aligns with how my peculiar brain works. So the idea that another Black person with a grandma and mama and niggas back home couldn’t possibly come to a similar conclusion as me, especially if they have been reading the same group of theorists, is mind-boggling. It would imply that I believe other Black people just aren’t as smart as I am.
I also believe the woman who accused me of stealing is not unintelligent, however. Given the fact that I have a large social media platform, I am light-skinned, and likely present as male in her eyes, if I am giving her the benefit of the doubt I would say that her qualms were less rooted in believing other Black people aren’t intelligent, and more about a valid hurt from being under-recognized alongside light-skinned, male/masculine folks with social media popularity. Though I would counter that Black queer people in dialogue is also a rarely recognized act of theorizing, one could ask why I learned to think about Indigeneity in this way through conversations with Preston, and not through her or other Black women who have surely been pushing this conversation forward far longer than since 2015.
Questions about who gets recognized for knowledge about our lives are crucial, but will only reinforce ideas around Black people’s lack of intelligence if we continue to commodify the Black experience under the guise of asking.
Rather than assigning ownership over an idea about the Black experience (i.e. the experience of Blackness as Indigeneity is “hers” and therefore it can be “stolen”), what does it mean that her experience and mine and Preston’s as queer non-women are similar, but only ours is getting traction now (and still not very much, mind you. I’m not famous)? What would it mean if her hurt for being ignored was legitimate without requiring the punishment of another Black queer person for the crime of “stealing”? What would it mean to think outside of punitivity, the same punitivity whiteness has used to construct its anti-Black prison systems, to address the very valid concerns of Black people?
To be Black is to live outside of the ways the world makes sense of itself, which means we are always attempting to come up with our own ways of making sense. The power is in how we come up with those ideas together, and therefore it cannot be realized by the individualism capitalism has taught us. The power is in how we reject the violences of this world altogether, including the violence of ownership and punitivity, and embrace a world where we are competent enough to engage our own experiences without them.
*This post is in partnership with Black Youth Project
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