YOU ALREADY KNOW:
I urge you to be careful, for there is a deadly prison, the prison that is erected when one spends one's life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths and explaining, over and over again, to the conqueror: your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits.
- Toni Morrison
The worst thing for Doc to write, in bleeding red ink, on your paper was the word: reactionary. It was the highest form of insult in his class. To it, he might even add a question: is that the best you can do? Stop thinking like a white man, he would say, as he handed back the crimson mess of your work. And if you tried to push back against the notion that you might ever be guilty of such a thing, he would say coolly to you: well that’s what you sound like when you spend twenty pages of research arguing with them. Don’t ever argue with white people about race. Make your point and move on. Arguing only feeds the pathology that they are the judge of the validity of what you have to say. That they are there to grant you permission. They are not. Once you know that, you will learn to win every argument by not allowing them in the first place. Doc also, absolutely, forbade the word: basically in its oral or written form. What exactly have you established a basis for at this point in your life? He would shout and slam his hands down, if one dared to utter or type it, after the rules had been established. Doc also required the phrase: those politically defined as to precede the labels Black and white, in reference to human beings. Someone(s) created the brutal bureaucracy of these terms. Treat it as such.
Doc said we all had a syndrome. Don’t think your skin color made you immune. They force-fed you all the same crap as their children, only with more force. But there was a fix for this affliction, he said. A correction on this Christopher Columbus like tendency to name and claim and dismiss and summarize and render sure verdicts on things, you didn’t know the first thing about. This mode of relating to the world was dangerous to its stability, and the enemy of knowledge, said Doc. Yet, it was still, the default-setting of too many. Doc’s fix came thrice a semester. In addition to forming your argument, you had to create a theoretical model that correlated to the thesis of your paper. You found it a rather tedious assignment, but Doc said, creating an argument of your own was superior to responding to someone else’s. Your arguments will be silly until they get better, he said. They get better only with practice. Once, you come up with one Doc says is a good one:
As an educated, half Black and half- Danish child of immigrants, in 1920s America… the psycho-socio-economic options presented to Helga Crane in Nella Larsen’s, Quicksand, resemble a game of three- card- monte… there is no just outcome available.
Other times, you will get your argument slashed through and written over in all caps. Doc conceded to your hurt feelings, once, that yes, it was a term, oft misapplied to anyone with an opinion in opposition to white-supremacist ideology. However, that was not the reason he wrote it on your paper. As an undergraduate, you have a tortured relationship to that that slur; reactionary. At nineteen, it is difficult to get a grip on what the word meant. Hard to understand the terms on which you could be called “reactionary” when you had spent your entire life being taught about the “triangle trade” and the genius of Eli Whitney and the true humanitarian nature of his invention, the cotton gin.
According to your middle school social studies textbook, besides increasing the amount of cotton separated and the demand for the forced labor to do it, the cotton gin also prevented slaves from pricking their fingers. At least, not quite as much, as they had before, while they sowed the capital for an empire for free. You hadn’t been able to say a word back to that or to the fourth- grade field trip to Madame Delphine LaLaurie’s house in the French Quarter. You hadn’t known what to make of the three smiling white women, who were your teachers, as they told you how Delphine had mutilated and tortured multiple of her slaves and gotten away with the whole thing. This was what was called an education for you. And now that you were studying the facts of it all, facts Doc was teaching you, all you wanted to do was a write a paper and expose all of this false language. How was that reactionary?
To this Doc would say: the ideas that freed the world once, and will again, were conceived by the people in the cane fields of Louisiana and Haiti. Who would we be if not for Toussaint L’Ouverture? Dessalines? Harriet, Vessey, Nat Turner, the maroons at Point Coupee? What of the ones that rose up and drowned themselves outright rather than be sold? Honey, Doc said, they were not interested in sassing their masters. Nor… did they spend all night rehashing the reasons why they were going to burn the shit to the ground. They were too busy discussing the strategy they would use to do it. Who cares what those white women were thinking that day outside a racist serial murderer’s house? What were you thinking? What do you think now? You have to carry the cane fields in your mind wherever you go, on paper or otherwise. To be truly radicalized, doc says, is to understand rebellion, not as a reaction to someone else, but as the total expression of self.
Because you descend from an enslaved people, it is impossible to know where you come from in totality. This is both a trope of your existence and a painful reality. You learn how the 1910s government policy called, “Americanization, forced and gave European immigrants a replacement for this knowledge, called whiteness. The “X” on the end of people’s names in the mosque, you attend lectures at in the nineties, sticks with you. You experiment in elementary school with adding it in place of your own last name on tests and assignments. It does not go over well. But at least, your parents are amused and proud. You are aware, despite what textbooks and teachers at your Catholic school say, that you are not born of a diagram; a triangle shape of rum, and spices, and people. Because you are from Louisiana, you are lucky. Your grandmother gives you a name to carry with you in the world; Zul-ma.
Zul-ma is your grandmother’s grandmother’s mother. She was straight from Africa. You learn from Doc that the French were a rather interesting bunch. While the English wheeled and dealed in slaves from all up and down and the West African coast, the French decided, why fix what wasn’t broken in Senegambia? They would, through the eighteenth century, steal more than half of their highly-skilled labor force from the area between the Senegal and the Gambia rivers. A region that was actively cultivating all of what would become major cash crops of the Americas; rice, indigo, cotton, tobacco etc. You learn the story behind a word, that you have heard a lot growing up, it becomes one of your favorite, Bambara.
Doc tells you that you are a unique invention of an ever influx creation. And as such, you are required to be interdisciplinary in your studies, lest you fall into the pit of reactionism. You are given a history book to read along with the literary selections over the course of the semester. This how Doc set up all his literature classes of which you will take many. This is not the place for “new” “criticism” and is it any wonder, that it came into fashion, to de-historicize things in the American south? Doc does not appreciate some of the framing in Gwendolyn Milo Hall’s, Africans in Colonial Louisiana either, but the information inside, he says, is nourishment for a decolonized mind.
The Bambara, a Mande people native to area of Mali (to which other groups like the Mandinke, Maninka, Malinke, Mandinga, Manya, Dyula, Duranko and Wangara also belong ) have seen the Malian empire rise and fall and travelled from their native-land and settled a few generations in the Senegambia region, by the time they become the captifs of the French. Tossed in holes cut from the ground, the Bambara find themselves without protection and vulnerable to theft, partially as a result of their outsider status, partially a result of their decision to remain, unlike their fellow Mandekan people, unassimilated in their new home. The Bambara refuse to bow five times a day to Allah. They will not turn themselves toward Mecca. They keep their ancestors’ cosmology intact all the way across the savannahs of Africa and eventually over distance of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Bambara believe the universe emerged from an infinite void in motion, which through a hyper-complex and very gradual process of taking on voice and vibration, eventually produces light and sound, creatures, actions and human sentiments. The power of androgyny is a core value and essential to understanding the dualities present in all things. Bambara cosmology is flexible and designed to be easily moved from place to place. For instance, when a Bambara musician sets up to play, he receives a command before beginning that roughly translates to: now go out and organize the world... The Bambara, it turns out, come to Louisiana with a worldview that understands the concept of sovereignty not through the acquisition of territory, but through people sharing a spiritual system and philosophy and familial alliances. A set of ideas that is yours still to access, Doc says, if only you give up the western preference for things being basic.
Now, Robert Farris Thompson is an old white man, Doc joked, who quite possibly knows more about being Black than any single one of you sitting in this classroom. Doc also assigns his book in addition to the other reading. RFT’S book, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy teaches you the Mandekan word, woron. Translated literally, it means “to get the kernel” or more accurately to its use, to master speech, song, music, or any aesthetic endeavor. You are beginning to understand the word, as the opposite of being reactionary; as what it means to establish a basis for something eternal and unconquerable. The Mande understanding of reason, you learn, did not rely on linearity but the balance of opposites— with a place for both the conformist and the innovator. You learn two more new words, badenya and fadenya, respectively.
You have been considering these concepts of conformity and innovation a lot lately, as things are grim in both directions of descent, West Africa and America. State violence coming by way of the police and bullets in the tops of skulls and in the backs of young men and women. You have been obsessed over reading about an epidemic killing people, who your insides and history teaches you are very likely your own. You do not wonder how those, who have established the wealth of several nations by way of the gold and minerals and people extracted from their land, could die from lack of rubber gloves, incinerators, and replacement fluid. You know very well. You read about a place called Monkey Island located deep in Liberia. An island, where the diseased chimps of US medical experimentation run free and infected and where white people wanting adventure, take boat tours to see. You watch as Marburg Fever, burg, as in a German bug, and its cousins Lassa and Ebola become a black disease. One white people catch from being heroes and others as a consequence of their continued existence. You have been considering the Mandekan proverb, the hero is but welcome on troubled days…
You remember when you found yourself in Doc’s class, three years after what should have been the last time. Katrina ended your senior year abruptly and you will have just returned to finish it. As much as you love him, you and Doc will nearly fall out that year, before he sets you straight. The situation in Jena, Louisiana is all over the national media. Nooses hang under trees on a high school campus and eventually a white boy gets his ass kicked for being a racist on the wrong day. Six black teenagers are charged with assault with a deadly weapon, the weapon being their tennis shoes, along with attempted murder. The white boy receives mostly cuts and bruises and does not require hospitalization or major medical treatment. Doc says we should all go to the protest, and take the buses the school is providing. Do not drive there in your cars. It is not safe.
Doc will, however, be in class, taking roll. This confounds you, Doc’s unwavering adherence to rules and technicalities. You tell him as much. Even the white teachers aren’t doing this, you say. He agrees. They aren’t. There are some people at this university that might excuse you, or give you extra credit, even, for protesting. Those are the liars and the ones not to trust. You will have to take more than an absence to rebel, kiddo. Learn to recognize real from fake. I’m getting you ready for the real world. Do you think the white people, who teach here, are here to train you to be strong enough to compete with their own children? Don’t be naïve. They are here because they pity you, think they are being noble. Make a fool out of that arrogance, don’t perform to it. Think about Ramadan, the power of one billion people to know they can perform at 100% with no food or water, in daylight hours, for thirty damn days. Learn what sacrifice is. Or better yet think of the Bambara, and what resistance meant in a hole, on a boat, across an ocean, on a savannah, where your people chose the ancestors over Allah. In a canefield, a schoolhouse— in America, it is all the same.
So, you have been praying, or hoping, or wishing, willing, or working –whatever you want to call it for the fadenya— the innovator, to reassert itself in your life. You have lost people. All of you. Too many for it to be fair. This is a fact that cannot be changed. You have become quite aware that you are alone and absent all your teachers. So, you have been reflecting, as much as you can, on what you have learned up until to this point. It will all be necessary. You will have to get the kernel to survive. To continue the path of action from which you descend.
You understand, better, now the lessons Doc tried to teach you. All those bleeding papers. Chile, he said, pursing his lips; they will never be able to deny your mind, but this grammar? Honey… white people love to discuss grammar when they don’t want to deal with your argument. Doc was joking to make you laugh, but he is also serious. Learn. Correct your mistakes, but fuck English, at the end of the day, he said. That’s not what I’ve meant to teach you all this time. Learn to recognize all this denial, this violence around you, as the most powerful affirmation of your total self. Know what it means to be truly incendiary. This is the knowledge of all the real radicals.