Thursday, June 25, 2009

grow up poet: challenging the narrative meaning of life

"We grew up as poets. We grew up to be single Black mothers at war with poverty." June Jordan in a tribute to Audre Lorde

Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties
ed Countee Cullen (1927)
"Reflections on Little Rock"
Hannah Arendt (1959)
Generations: A Memoir Lucille Clifton (1969)
"Album" Lucille Clifton (1988)
"Female" Lucille Clifton (1988)
"quilting" Lucille Clifton (1991)
Lucifer series Lucille Clifton (1991)
"The Myth and Tradition of the Black Bulldagger" SDiane A. Bogus (1991)
"Word Warrior" Jan Clausen (1993)
Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life Giorgio Agamben (1995)
"amazons" Lucille Clifton (1996)
Soul Talk: The New Spirituality of African American Women Akasha Hull (2001)
Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaelogy of Black Women's Lives Jenny Sharpe (2003)
"In the Mirror" Lucille Clifton (2004)
Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition Cheryl Wall (2005)
State of Exception Giorgio Agamben (2005)
Souls at the Crossroads, African on the Water: The Politics of Diasporic Melancholia Sara Clarke Kaplan (2007)
"Love and Violence/Maternity and Death: Black Feminism and the Politics of Reading (Un)representability" Sara Clarke Kaplan (2007)
"Popular Sentiments and Black Women's Studies: The Scholarly and Experiential Divide" Catherine Squires (2007)
"Where's the Violence? The Promise and Perils of Teaching Women of Color Studies" Grace Chang (2007)
"Downward Residential Mobility in Structural-Cultural Context: The Case of Disadvantaged Black Mothers" Katrina Bell McDonald and Bedelia Nicola Richard (2008)
"Intersectionality Heteronormativity and Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Families" Juan Battle and Colin Ashley (2008)
"The Black Mother Within: Notes on Feminism and the Classroom" Tiya Miles (2008)
"Lucille Clifton's Blessings and Mercies: Writing Spiritual Love as Social Power" Keith Leonard (forthcoming)

This week as part of the summer workshop for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows at Barnard College (affectionately known as research proposal writing bootcamp) I have been advising students on how to come up with compelling and specific research questions. "The meaning of life" I joked on Tuesday, is not a specific research question.
But in light of my response to what I've been reading recently and the miraculous success of the embodied poetic practice of the Mother Ourselves workshop on the Poetics of Community Building Ebony and I facilitated at the Brecht Forum that same day, I might need to revise that statement.

Yesterday, I told the same students (who I know I confuse way too much just by being my contradictory gemini self) that "black maternity is stolen authorship, transforming what life means on our bodies." Which has much to do with the way Hortense Spillers describes the "intervening narrative" of African American Literature as a response to the inscription of the flesh. And which also has to do with my birthday reclamation of myself as a poet at the Furious Flower poetry seminar last month. Let's hope the students pay more attention to what I do than to what I say. Because it's true, with every word choice, publication practice, community writing and research method, the meaning of life is at stake.
Which brings me to the question of my dissertation chapter on survival (the revising of which brought me to most of the reading above) I talk about forms of life especially as elaborated in the theories of survival that June Jordan (HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!) and Audre Lorde offer in two very different forms: the polemic and the poem. So as I revised I read lots of poetry (especially Lucille Clifton's amazon poems which invoke Audre Lorde) a review of Lorde's Undersong that came out right after her death, some important articles from the important journal Black Women Gender and Families which touched on the language of maternity in teaching, housing, queer family dynamics and political discourse, Cheryl Wall's insightful investigation into how black women writers trouble the idea of literary lineage and Akasha Hull's cosmically crucial study on how black women writers (including Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Cade Bambara and Alexis De Veaux and herself) have been building spiritual repetoires of radically transformative creative work as part of an energetic shift in what life means on the planet.

All of this reading surrounded and bolstered me for the rereading my advisors actually suggested that I do which was of famous and very much envouge european theorists Georgio Agamben and Hannah Arendt. I gloss over Agamben in the earlier version of the chapter because I am very wary of the fact that many academic readers of my work who have read Agamben and have not read Lorde and Jordan would use their own differential familiarity with Agamben's work to displace Lorde and Jordan as the primary theorists of my work. The same is possible with Arendt whose work is newly trendy again. I didn't engage Arendt in the initial version of the chapter because I can hardly believe how blatantly racist she was in her take on school integration and the ethnic studies movement in the American university. However, I want to use this space to address their work on forms of life and natality in the context of the conversation that I am accountable which views black maternity as a meaningful site for an intervention into the meaning of life.

So Agamben in his work on "bare life" and "the state of exception" reminds us of the ancient western distinction between "bios" and "zoe." Bios is described as mere life, including animal life, and also as "mere reproductive life." Zoe on the other hand is distinct, political life (as put in opposition to reproductive life). In other words...Zoe is life with meaning. Arendt's concept of natality the miraculous idea that the possibility of history and action change everytime a person is born. Arendt argues that this natal possibility is only meaningful within a narrative understanding of life that has a beginning a middle and an end and where the meaning of life is unitary. This Arendt insists is what seperates us from animals (and we see how great being seperate from animals has been for the life of our planet.) The reproduction of a social world in which birth and death mean what they mean now is a requisite for the impact of birth to have the exciting significance for action potential that Arendt ascribes it in her theorization of natality. As one would imagine, but neither theorist directly admits, these distinctions come with some unspoken ideas about personhood. As we know (and indeed as the implications of Agamben's work on the camp and the limits of life suggest) life if not uniformly legible, and not all narratives give birth the same exciting potential. In fact as my chapter on maternity documents, the interconnected narratives of slave code and abortion law, and welfare policy in the United States inscribe the figure of the black mother as mere reproductive life, or more accurately, life with negative meaning. Because of the law through which the child follows the condition of the enslaved mother the black mother becomes the cipher through which children can be born into illegibility...born without any legal rights, and in the rhetoric (welfare queen) and practice (welfare reform) of welfare legislation the poor black mother is carcicatured and characterized as she who produces meaningless life, babies who are nothing more than a way to cheat the system for welfare benefits.

It is not a mere coincidence (though maybe a reproductive one) that in Arendt's analysis, the student movement was pure until it was corrupted by black students (corrupted by their dangerous and dirty black mothers) who she says introduced violence into the student movement, or that in her article arguing against school disegregation that she pathologizes parents who would dare encouarge their children to participate in the struggle for civil rights, relating that all she could think of during the attempted desegregation in Little Rock was of the absentee father who was not on the scene with his daughter who was attempting to integrate the school system..right before insisting that the federal government should not intervene in local school system...suggesting that those without visible present fathers also do not deserve the protection of the state (not to mention the right of education.) Arendt goes on to insist that the right of full choice in marriage (in this case across race) is a much more primary right than the right to equal access to education or public space or transportation, and then to chastize civil rights organizers for prioritizing those issues...when evidently access to inter-racial marriage is so much more important.

Of course we see echoes of this privileging of access to the patriarchal institution of marriage over the general rights that all people and communities deserve (healthcare, housing, immigration rights for loved ones) in the contemporay mainstream Lesbian and Gay movement's prioritization of marriage, a choice that black feminists Barbara Smith and Cheryl Clarke have critiqued exactly on the grounds that political and economic rights are the real issue, especially in queer communities of color. Anyway, I'm so angry that I am about to get off track, but the point is it seems to me that Arendt's theorization of natality and the meaning of life is consistent with the pathologization of black mothering. In fact the importance of natality...the actions and the context...the narrative through which life is the very reason that black women's claim on mothering and authority is continually criminalized IN the narrative of US law and policy. If the meaning of life is at stake, and the context of the narrative through which we have been understanding life must be preserved, no wonder black mothers are dangerous and (as Rickie Solinger teaches us) mothering is a class privilege.
If we can trouble the reproduction of the narrative of life and death in this way (think about the poetic interventions of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker who insist that their lives and their work do not start or end with their individual lives, think of M. Jaqui Alexander who reminds us about african-based spiritual practices in the diaspora that disrupt narrative unity by finding life energy, parentage, ancestors and theory in the wind and trees) this also pushes back against the division between life and life (bios and zoe) that Agamben starts with, not through the spacial exception, but though the site of reproduction. In other words if we can understand that the site of reproduction (sometimes called the black mother) IS the site of meaning-making, we have a new form of authority that might not reproduce status quo, the political narrative through which we have been mediating life.

For example, what if we grow up poets? What if (as suggested by Jordan's choice in the epigraph to this post) growing up poets and growing up single Black mothers at war with poverty and racist violence is directly related? What if we grow up refusing the discipline of beginning middle and end choosing instead the structure of resonance, echo, nuance and multiplicity? What if we refuse to channel our children into the institutional coherence and legibility of heteronormative family and marriage? What if we co-mother? What if we ancestor-worship? What if we are June Jordan and Audre Lorde and Pat Parker on consecutive rotating days? What does birth mean then? What if we steal authority, such that the mere reprodutivity of our lives means everything, instead of meaning nothing?

Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt. No wonder you didn't want black students to take over the University. No wonder you are horrified by watching black girls attempting to go to school. Here I am Hannah Arendt. Born again and still taking over. Hannah Arendt. it is summer semester. And I am stealing your term. Instead of the narrative natality that Arendt proposes....(I call it narrative because it insists on the need for the continutation of a pre-existing narrative for the meaningfulness of life) I intervene (we intervene) with a poetic natality that centers those criminalized practices of black mothering in the face of poverty and that threaten a western story about what life means.

Lol. Be horrified. We're back :)

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