By Marcie Bianco and J.T. Roane
TFW Collective Member, Darnell L. Moore, delivered a talk titled, “What Freedom Feels Like: On love, empathy and pleasure in the age of neoliberalism,” as part of the The Kennedy School’s Audre Lorde Human Rights Lecture Series sponsored by the Carr Center’s Sexuality, Gender and Human Rights Program. The talk, delivered in November 2012, examined the affective dimensions of freedom. In an effort to expand the conversation on freedom and affect, specifically the interconnections between radical love and freedom, Moore invited two brilliant scholar activists, Marcie Bianco and James T. Roane, to write critical responses to the talk with the hope of furthering the conversation beyond the page and into lived communities.
Future-Oriented Love: Love Beyond Identity, Love for New Communities
In his Audre Lorde inspired observation about the pervasive “fear of feeling” in this “age of Neoliberalism,” Darnell L. Moore writes,
Love is a movement. Actually, love is the movement. It is that which moves each of us toward one another. That is to say, it is the eradication of the distance that exists between us and the other. Indeed, the radical potential in love is its ability to destroy the walls, fortifications, edges, spaces, which work to separate us.
I want to begin with Moore’s thoughts about love as (a) movement, love as action, in order to open a dialogue about how we can re-conceptualize love as the future-oriented, affective force required for the creation of community. Specifically, I contend that the LGBT community must re-imagine love as an empathic force not predicated on history but on the promise of unknown futures in order for our community to collectively move beyond past traumas. Only by doing so can we begin to reorient our politics beyond the neoliberalist strictures that have bound us to particular political and ethical ways of being, and to the identity politics that have truncated the diverse, potential horizons of our gender and sexual liberation.
Critical to my argument is an understanding of love that is based on the body outside identity. Yes, only when we truly love ourselves can we love another, but who is this “other” we are connecting to? If we connect to an other simply because of a shared, socially constructed identity, then our love is false. Love “commodified” in this nature, to echo Moore’s evocation of Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic,” exists in this fashion solely as neoliberalist affect. Love, in this capacity, demands fixed identities, and it places those demands on everyone who has entered that particular relation—and we wonder why the LGBT political agenda is at a stalemate. In Time Travels, Feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz attests that only by adopting a “politics of imperceptibility” can we connect to others outside identity. She draws from Deleuze and Guattari, who explain that both “sexuality and love…dream of wide-open spaces, and cause strange flows to circulate that do not let themselves be stocked within an established order” (Anti-Oedipus, 116). The established order of identity politics effects stagnation; love, in this regard, is no longer a force of connection but a means for discrimination.
Here’s the catch: how can a community move beyond identity, or at least identity politics? I think positing such a potential is radically naïve, too idealistic, and quite impossible. As social creatures, we will always have identities. However, I do believe we have the ability to re-conceptualize how we construct those identities, from identities determined by past trauma to ones imagined on future promise. Here is where and how love functions. Instead of loving a person because of her identity, can we free love from this prejudice? Too often in the LGBT community I have found that an individual only gains the respect and love of another once she’s confessed to all her physical, psychological, and emotional traumas. Why this need for confession? Why must I return to a history that I have already worked through and dislocated myself from in order to be accepted into your community? All humans suffer. Let’s stop qualifying and judging the extent of people’s traumas. Queer identities should not be hierarchized on the number of one’s traumatic experiences. Being queer isn’t a game of how many subjective positions of suffering I can appropriate at one period in time.
Understanding that all humans suffer, can we then release ourselves from the victim-mentality that has paralyzed the LGBT community? Can we, as difficult as it might be, unchain ourselves from the past in order to liberate love and allow it to become a force of “strange flows,” to build a bigger, stronger, and more diverse community? (And, what kind of privilege is implicit in this ability to unchain ourselves?)
Love is born out of sympathy for the self’s fallibility and suffering and expands to the other when we comprehend that she, too, is fallible and suffers. Empathy is love that incorporates another, outside of the self. Can we, the LGBT community, imagine love as the force that allows us to build and foster a community not based on traumas of the past, but on a vision of the future not based in trauma? Because this is precisely what love as an affective force of connection is capable of accomplishing—if only we liberate it.
Freedom feels like our black queer family
In the last month or so my work with youth in Philadelphia has gotten increasingly intimate and personal. No longer is it something that Huewayne and I engage on the weekends, which had become our customary practice since moving from New York, but it is now a set of daily rituals, practices, and engagements constitutive of family. It is based in our home, the place we maintain and build daily with the young people who have recently joined us. Darnell’s reflections on the power of love and empathy give me a framework through which to interpret the things we are doing to keep ourselves and our people alive as revolutionary acts. Revolutionary not in the sense that they seek a direct negation of the large scale structures of the neoliberal-carceral state or the snares of debt and drudgery that accompany structural adjustment and neo-colonialism come home to roost necessarily, but Revolutionary in the sense that they seek to reimagine the world fundamentally through a labor of love, kin, and [queer] family. Darnell’s poetic reflections, interlaced with the poetry of the queer ancestors he invokes, come at a critical juncture in our process of renaming and reclaiming our labor as work that is not outside of “the Movement,” but central and essential within and beyond that designation, if we are going to free ourselves from bondage and captivity. Like any good revolutionary poet, Darnell’s words are helping us get free.
Our efforts at working with youth began a month into our time in Philadelphia. Two of my cousins, like too many youth in West and other sections of the city, had direct confrontation with the engorged police state just before we moved. Modeling our time together after monthly Sunday dinners that their grandmother and my Aunt Verne inaugurated before Huewayne and I arrived in Philly, we began simply holding art workshops and rap sessions with the boys and their sisters in our row house. And of course we shared food. When the passing of the cold made it more convenient to work with them where they live, we took our art to their block. This helped us to connect with youth beyond my own second cousins and appeared at once as something that we could began naming as “movement work.” We heard from the youth that they wanted to work. As well, we garnered a sense of the poisonous effects of overlapping traumas that come with the loss of loved ones too young or too early, the core six siblings and their mother, my cousin Collease, themselves having lost their sister and daughter, Royale. This of course is all too common for those of us who live at the periphery of investment where most black people reside in hypersegregated, policed, and disproportionately polluted communities.
Huewayne and I decided that we should try to ratchet up our work a level of intensity in order to connect and build with more youth in the community in West Philly where the youth and Collease called home. We decided along with one of our ancestors’ still on this plane, Wende Marshall, to pursue training as cultural organizers with the Zilphia Cultural Organizing Institute at Highlander in June 2013. Part of the process of that institute was the development of a practical work plan to help us pursue a course of fundamental changes in policy and/or community practice. Even in our first draft, this for me was a real stretch as we struggled in the processes of naming and scripting the various photographic projects, painting sessions, rap sessions, meals, and unnamable times together in the language of movement. Wende, Huewayne, and I were all trained as community organizers through the two programs offered by the Center for Third World Organizing, and Wende had worked as an organizer in Central Harlem for a decade or more. That is to say, we know a fair amount about the language of organizing and how to distinguish it from “activism,” “service,” or one of the other formalized ways that people engage in community. I struggled primarily because I felt and feel that there is little room in these languages for the sensuous, touching, feeling, squishy community that we might better describe as family and which has proven the essential part of our work as formal lines of action and flight dissipate with the whims of funders. Wedging this schism in language is the long retreat on the part of organizers and activists from the language of family and love following their co-optation by the right since the 1980s. All of this is to say, that calling the work that I do with my second cousins and their friends “the movement,” was difficult.
Admittedly, I was filled with trepidation as we drove from Philly to Highlander. I kept thinking, “what if we are not really doing what everyone else will consider organizing? Are we, a group from Philly, in a program that is to be reserved for Southern organizers, just taking up space?” These were the thoughts that my own training as an organizer and things that I held so centrally to the meaning and power of organizing as a radical practice of community, prevented me from disbanding in my own dream world. They clouded over everything and filled me with a sense of dread, though I was going to the place where one of my most important forbearers, mama Septima Clarke had launched the citizenship schools. Making this rather intense nervousness all the more heavy for me, was the fact that my cousin Collease, who is a spiritual visionary, told me that my life path would come to a critical fork during our time at Highlander. In particular, she told me that an older woman, stern but with love would tell me the things I needed to hear.
Despite my nervousness stemming from some internalized sense of lack and the great expectation that Collease had imparted, the powerhouse organizers and purple spirited Tufara Waller Muhammed, Marquez Rhyne, April Caddell, Alajandro Guizar, Ebony Golden, Carre Adams, Alejandro, Susan Williams, and Jardana Peacock sung, danced, and moved me from my fear in our first hours there. They invited us to join the beloved community with organizers and cultural workers from Nashville, Baton Rouge and other places from all over the South. Though I was quite unaware of it at the time, I drew some of the institute’s key lessons from the closeness and love we built and shared together outside of the steeped language of organizing and formalized discussions. I learned the most over Mama Yawa’s extraordinary victuals. I was greatly inspired by our sisters from Baton Rouge, who came to step up their fight against Exxon Mobil, which pollutes their community just beyond the gates of the plant, without the threat of repercussions from the city or the state. Tonga Noland, a fierce cancer survivor and organizer relayed numerous stories about how she spent her last resources to feed youth in her neighborhood in order to help them connect with one another. Although she is not always able to garner support of parents and elders, many of them employees of the same company that poisons them, she has gained the trust of many of her community’s youth by being there and loving and sharing. Tonga’s stories and her humor continue to float around my gray matter.
As is any experience with the beloved community, our time on the hill at Highlander created an intense sense of euphoria and all at once a massive transformation of things back in Philly seemed not only possible but inevitable. Editing our original plan, Huewayne, Wende and I began to imagine the rudiments of an alternative economy set up through market days, and an ancestor project that would in Huewayne’s words “mobilize our trauma” toward transformative healing and community. But the euphoria soon passed as we returned and tried to make sense of a way forward in the realm of the practical. As Ebony Golden had reminded us before we parted, “there is your plan, and then there was what really happens.” This was compounded by the economic situation we all faced. We are broke and we do not have any foundation support. We all felt pressure to step it up and get it going, to be more productive in our movement work, but we also had to deal with the fact that on paper we do not move and work in the world in ways that are easily legible to funders, even small lefty ones, as authentically political. Too often movement workers with the wind of foundation money in their sails, cast family and love outside of the “true” work of community organizing and building.
As August approached, the dire nature of the financial situation all around grew more severe, eventually leading Collease to ask us to take her four sons, Don-Don, Kyale, Jameere, and Tayvere to live with us. In one, very contrived framework, that makes, maintains, and naturalizes a boundary between the movement and “family,” this has presented us with a “setback” from which our efforts may never recover. According to this division, we are doing family but that ain’t community and it ain’t radical or revolutionary.
But that is all bullshit. We live together as a black queer family and though I am bound with these youth through kin, there is nothing self-evident or inevitable about the bonds of community we build and name as family. Our family is an intense pedagogical space for us all and we are using it to figure out the way forward through living together and sharing time, food, and love in ways that go deeper and wider than what we might have intended as we came back from Highlander. We spend time together thinking about the world and plotting a line of flight from it, a revolution, but we also eat together, share and love, and just ‘be,’ together.
Hearing Darnell’s poetry taught me that Tonga Noland is one of the goddesses in my head that I carry around, talk to, ask and contemplate. She is indeed the woman that Collease had predicted. She teaches me, though that time and space divide that the primary work of the revolution is the work of building relationships through the basics of communion and fellowship — just as much as it is confronting Exxon Mobil head-on. Darnell’s poetry, like any good poetry is helping me get free; free in this case to understand the practical work of living, sharing and loving, particularly as the work of the revolution helps us reimagine and create sovereign spaces over, against, beneath, and in the interstices of global capitalist space — those that in their depth and power will eclipse all the isms that hold us captive and oppressed. For now, “freedom feels like” our black queer family.