Open LetterRace

freedom: to be black is to already be dead

November 9, 2018
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A couple months ago, I went to see poet, playwright and theorist, Claudia Rankine speak at a panel discussion on the subject of “Blondeness”. There, the notion of freedom was discussed, with reference to a widely held cross-cultural belief that one’s knowledge of their own proximity to death is, in fact, “freedom”, or at least, “freeing”… and that got me thinking.

I raised my hand and asked Miss Rankine, “If we are to consider this notion of proximity to death true, could you not then deduce that the universal ‘Black person’ is indeed the closest to said ‘freedom’?”

After a second or two of reflection, she replied, “Good question. No. To be Black, is to already be dead.” The predominantly white audience fell silent, and I, having posed the question from, perhaps, a more hopeful and metaphorical place, felt pinched. Hearing her tell me I was already dead felt like a blow to the circuit wiring in my head — a crack in my mental schema. Still, I’m not sure I fully subscribe, but I think I understand.

I’ve been asking myself of late, am I an Afro-pessimist? I’m not studied enough on the subject to assume that title; however, I know what it feels like to wake up and go to bed with a chip on my shoulder, to fear for the lives of my family and friends and unborn children — to traverse (since childhood) a physical and metaphysical world, feeling as though death is right outside my door. (If not already inside, having kicked the door down in the middle of the night.)  

Amidst this ever distressing election season and what feels like impending doom on all fronts and at all costs, I am brought back to Miss Rankine’s words. Is there any power and/or strength to be derived in operating from the premise that we, the collective Black person, is already dead? I vote, “Yes”.

As a dead person, I live not in fear of dying. This alleviating disposition may provide greater space for an empathic one, one I ran from for a very long time. If I am already dead, might I then become more soft, more malleable — less fixed in material and physicality — more indoctrinated into matters of the spirit and heart? Might I turn into a benevolent ghost, turning the minds of a generation of youth, one impassioned lesson-plan at a time? Could it be that, in being dead, I’ll shed the individualist and capitalist programs of isolationist societal critique, and, instead, embody authentic, collaborative community-building and -organizing practice?

I wish all of us to immerse ourselves in grassroots and hyper-local endeavors without care of discomfort or losing out on leisure. Perhaps a post-mortem hindsight is indeed what is needed to unlearn and re-educate a radicalized future populous. There is no nuance left to the white supremacist pathology, which continues to manifest itself in codified genocide. The world around us so badly wants us dead…and so I emphatically can play dead. In the face of evil, we must consider performing more generously — feeling harder, as a means to greater change, since time and time again intellectualism proves to be an inadequate gesture.