- (Dis)Respect, or When Blackness Is the Natural Object of Dissent
There is a dialogue between the two musings that follow, a critical pondering born of a set of conversations between us. "How do we move blackness from an object of convenience to one of full-time dissent?" What began as an undergraduate mentee talking to his mentor became a critical dialogue about the state of black study and the possibilities available in the release of age-old "key terms." In our discussion we arrived at two primary points of interest, which we tried to interrogate in our keynote plenary remarks:
how blackness itself is already a diss to respectable whiteness; therefore, our duty is to be intimate with a black study that understands refusal and resistance as proper objects and methods.
how the structural antagonism of respectability and anti-respectability is a ruse, as these terms are situated within the terrain of an impossible respect. Instead, we may be better served to rethink blackness and its disrespect as a primary method of dissent.
Radical black study requires intimacy with deviance, not departures from it.
Contrary to James Baldwin's warning in The Fire Next Time, sometimes you have to be "what the white world calls a nigger."1 While Baldwin sees this performance of "nigger" as a site of destruction for black folks, I argue that the nigger-embodiment may be particularly useful in scenes of white antiblackness. To see even kernels of change—in the unrelenting field of black antagonism—requires a resistant, whiteness-critiquing, obstructing everyday conveniences, diss to white respectability. This dissent must occur in action, in speech, in our reading practices and hermeneutics, in performance, in the classroom, and even in intimate relationships. This is what I learned at the site of Ferguson; this is what I learned in the creation of black spiritual formations at odds with classic Christianity; and this is what I learn living as a black queer feminist man raising two boys in a world that is preparing to hate them. "Being [End Page 199] a Nigger" is, as Sadiyya Hartman suggests, being after "more than the desire for inclusion within the limited set of possibilities that the national project provides."2 Meaning, our goal must not be to find the pathways to righteous citizenship or write ourselves into "humanity"; rather, it is a refusal of such, knowing that all that is will always be, especially insofar as white participation in antiblackness is concerned. There is no incentive for whiteness to relinquish itself of the duties to perform antiblackness and to commit to violence against black bodies and its matter.
The only reckoning for white nonparticipation in antiblackness is when we ourselves begin to more permanently be for whiteness, what we thought only whiteness could be, that is, when black subjects employ black antiblackness—which can look like respectability, but can also be found in its antithesis. Respectability and anti-respectability, though sometimes useful, are often discussed in ways that pretend that there are no other constructs outside this "respect" construct, which can satisfy desires to remake black worlds. These worlds, for me, unapologetically fuck with the canon—a negotiating around respectability (or avoidance of), rather than working within it—and manifest as a refusal of some of the ideas of black humanity and dignity, which have been deemed "givens."
In my next book, Read! An Experiment in Seeing Black, I perform what I call disobedient readings, an engagement with black past and present performances, cultural artifacts, and sacrosanct institutions—from slavery to the Black Gender System—to offer a careful rendering of new possibilities that defy what we have come to know as "facts of blackness." What I suggest in my interrogation of institutions—especially when looking at state-sanctioned violence—is that the treatment of blackness is contoured by white grotesque readings of blackness. In this way, I carefully craft whiteness as monstrous presence, which intimately engages "black men and women" in ways that indicate being transfixed and trifling in their attendance to black people and black life. This trifling performance of mediocre reading costs life. For me, too...