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125 chapter four Bringing Out the Dead Black Feminism’s Prophetic Vision The Soothsayers who found out from time what it had in store certainly did not experience time as homogeneous or empty. —­ Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Barbara Christian’s 1994 essay, entitled “Diminishing Returns: Can Black Feminism(s) Survive the Academy?,” haunts me, almost twenty years after its publication. In this essay, Christian addresses the question of the future of Black feminism by examining the many barriers—­ material, institutional, intellectual—­ that deny new generations of African Americans, and African American women in particular, access to college educations, much less graduate degrees that would lead to academic positions. Christian carefully notes that it is not necessarily only African American women who have something to contribute to Black feminism, and situates this condition in light of the seemingly contradictory surge in interest in Black feminism and in African American literature and African American studies. In so doing, she paints a powerful picture of a bleak and ironic future, one in which the university’s fetishization of Black feminism as an avenue of intellectual inquiry does not render impossible , and indeed in some ways facilitates, its systemic violence against Black women.1 She writes, “It would be a tremendous loss, a distinct irony, if some version of Black feminist inquiry exists in the academy to which Black women are not major contributors.”2 This essay haunts me because I cannot suppress my suspicion that we are indeed facing a moment when this “distinct irony,” this “tremendous loss,” is occurring, but in a way Christian never might have imagined.3 I am forced to consider that this bleak future may have come to pass, not 126 Bringing Out the Dead only, as Christian so presciently foretold, through the dismantling of redistributive mechanisms that might have enabled current and future generations of Black feminists to enter the academy but also because so many of the Black feminists of Christian’s and later generations have died prematurely—­struck down by cancer and other diseases—­including Christian herself in 2000. June Jordan in 2002. Sherley Anne Williams in 1999. Toni Cade Bambara in 1995. Audre Lorde in 1992. Beverly Robinson in 2002. Endesha Ida Mae Holland in 2006. Claudia Tate in 2002. Nellie McKay in 2006. VèVè Clark in 2007. Toni Yancey in 2013. Stephanie Camp in 2014.4 In naming these women, these Black feminists, I respond to James Baldwin’s imperative to “bring out your dead.”5 In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, a raging meditation on the erasure and disavowal of racialized death, inspired by the murder of at least twenty-­ one African American children in Atlanta in 1979 and 1980, Baldwin writes, Bring out your dead: Edward Hope Smith, 14. Reported missing July 20, 1979. Found dead on July 28 of gunshot wounds along a road in a wooded area. Bring out your dead: Alfred James Evans, 13. Last seen July 25, 1979, waiting to catch a bus. Police identified Evans’s body October 13, 1980, after it was found July 28 near the body of Edward Hope Smith. Strangulation. Bring out your dead: Milton Harvey, 14. Last seen September 1979. Found dead November 1979. Cause of death: undetermined. Bring out your dead.6 And the list goes on and on.7 To bring out your dead is to remember what must be forgotten, to find the “evidence of things not seen”: that the notion of American equality in the protection of life is a fallacy, that life is not protected if you are raced and gendered, and that you are raced and gendered if your life is not protected. To bring out your dead is to say that these deaths are not unimportant or forgotten, or, worse, coincidental . It is to say that these deaths are systemic, structural. To bring out Bringing Out the Dead 127 your dead is both a memorial and a challenge, an act of grief and of defiance , a register of mortality and decline, and of the possibility of struggle and survival.8 It is diªcult to say and impossible to “prove” that these women su¤ered early deaths because the battles around race, gender, and sexuality were being waged so directly through and on their bodies.9 Yet the names bear witness to this unknowable truth. Let me also pause here to let these untimely deaths resonate with others and to recall other moments when the imperative to call...


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