Have a Good Time

July 13, 2016

Summer, flags, unsettling John Brown


“A great unrest was on the land. It was not merely moral leadership from above—it was the push of mental and physical pain from beneath;—not simply the cry of the Abolitionist but the upstretching of the slave. The vision of the damned was stirring the western world and stirring black men as well as white. Something was forcing the issue—call it what you will, the Spirit of God or the spell of Africa. It came like some great grinding ground swell,—vast, indefinite, immeasurable but mighty […].”
W. E. B. Du Bois, John Brown, Chapter V

“And if I make this Earth a metaphor I make a metaphor against the police”
Miguel James, “Against the Police”

I spent a good part of the last year thinking about W. E. B. Du Bois and John Brown. It wasn’t meant to take a year, but then I’m slow. The prompt for the form of the thought was throat surgery, related to longstanding chronic health conditions, which two summers ago resulted in slight but lingering difficulties with speech and subtle changes to the sound of my voice. Looking for ways to work through those changes, I returned to an old interest in Librivox, where volunteers create recordings of texts in the public domain, and for my first solo project I chose the 1909 edition of Du Bois’s biography of Brown (sadly missing the communist revisions of 1962) because I’d had my eye on it for a while, and because I was surprised to find no one had read it yet.

(I also missed my old, fuller, sharper voice—though how noticeable the differences are to anyone else I don’t know—and so, mostly for that reason, I restored some of the few recordings of it that I had first put online and then, like many things I put online, made private. One of them was a YouTube video from November 2013 which doubles as a kind of awkward sequel to an older post on this blog. It responds to some comments left on a clip by Mary Eng which had in turn engaged with that first post. My video focuses on Eng, Chelsea Manning, and Slavoj Žižek—who, in April of this year, did the world the favor of clarifying a position: “Transgenderism—I’m opposed to it.” Whether the world has sufficiently acknowledged that favor is another question. Free Chelsea Manning.)

I soon realized that this slow experiment—reading sentences over and over for the right emphases, seeking out other online sources for pronunciation and background information, spending hours editing each file—was a perfect way for me to get close to Du Bois’s text, to fall in love with his sentences, and to sit with the words he quoted extensively from John Brown and his contemporaries. It was also a linguistic education in settler colonialism, as my concern for articulation led me to page after page full of other white Americans disagreeing over the names of the cities in which they lived.

I wasn’t surprised to find echoes of the crises of Brown’s time in 2015that was why I had chosen the book. But for the specificity of some connections I was unprepared, and they’ve stayed with me. In June I was reading about Brown’s strategic debt to Denmark Vesey and his planned insurrection in South Carolina, days before Dylann Roof desecrated Vesey’s church and weeks before Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol. (I want to come back to this later.) And flags were on my mind again in November. A few hours before I saw news of an attack in Paris, and a couple of days before Facebook was suggesting that I add a French flag to my profile picture and other users were eloquently addressing the colonial violence of that suggestion, I was reading about the 1858 Chatham convention, where John Brown and an assembly of black and white abolitionists from Canada and the U.S. drafted and debated the constitution for the “provisional government” they aimed to establish following the overthrow of slavery in the Southern states. Disagreements arose regarding the flag that this phantom government would adopt. Here, too, sympathetic intentions could not erase histories of violence. Du Bois quotes J.M. Jones’s observation that some black members of the convention, naturalized as Canadian subjects after fleeing slavery,

[…] said they would never think of fighting under the hated “Stars and Stripes.” Too many of them thought they carried their emblem on their backs. But Brown said the old flag was good enough for him; under it freedom had been won from the tyrants of the Old World, for white men; now he intended to make it do duty for the black men. He declared emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes. That settled the question.

I’m interested in the connection between this passage and another quotation from Jones at the convention, a few pages later, which ends on the same note and with the same verb:

A question as to the time for making the attack came up in the convention. Some advocated that we should wait until the United States became involved in war with some first-class power; that it would be next to madness to plunge into a strife for the abolition of slavery while the government was at peace with other nations. Mr. Brown listened to the argument for some time, then slowly arose to his full height, and said: “I would be the last one to take the advantage of my country in the face of a foreign foe.” He seemed to regard it as a great insult. That settled the matter in my mind that John Brown was not insane.

Du Bois makes no explicit comment on this discussion of flags, nations, and the borders of sanity. But one aspect of his book I value deeply is its consistent attention to the difficult interplay between moral leadership from above and pain from beneath: which entails an attention to the way John Brown’s position as a white man meant both a responsibility to unsettle some matters, and the unearned, almost unquestionable authority to settle others.

More than any other white man of his time, Brown recognized the responsibility. He knew that few things would disturb the slaveholders of the South more than a white American willing to die and to kill for abolition; he came to feel that his own death was necessary, as Du Bois again quotes Jones as saying, “to awaken the people from the deep sleep that had settled upon the minds of the whites of the North.” And Du Bois closes the book’s stunning final chapter with words that situate Brown as an abiding prophet of a great un/settlement to come—in 1859, in 1909, in 1962, and in 2016: “You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet.” Nevertheless, as the passages from Chatham and others attest, Brown also exploited the authority. He dismissed the voices of black men who hated the Stars and Stripes, who recognized those stripes as running parallel to the wounds on their backs. In the midst of planning what he knew would be understood—inevitably and not inaccurately—as an assault on the government that had authorized those wounds, Brown overrode their objections and insisted on flying the same government’s flag.

“Racism is decisive,” Sara Ahmed wrote in November: “It decides to whom we have an affinity (and to whom we do not).” The dissenters at Chatham knew that to define such affinities and distinctions, to make them material and to mark out which lives matter, is often a flag’s work. On occasion, even in the most radically aspirant settings, the established affinity can look like sanity, so that it is an affirmation of allegiance to a flag, or to the republic for which it stands, which can tether radical thought to the realm of the rational or the sensible. Flags can settle such matters, especially when flown, as the American and French flags were and are, by settlers.


Most sources quote John Brown’s final words approaching the scaffold as some version of a sentence that can be seen to uphold a settlement: “This is a beautiful country.” Du Bois’s biography is to my knowledge the only text that has Brown say, instead, “This is a beautiful land.” And it’s true that the two sentences are nearly identical—considering that Brown wrote of “the crimes of this guilty land,” famously crimes to be “purged away with blood,” when he could have written “this guilty country.” Still, I suspect a wishful and affirmative gesture here on Du Bois’s part. “This is a beautiful country” is exquisite, of course, in the cruel optimism of its patriotic self-sacrifice. At the same time it lends itself to the merely optimistic recuperative efforts of, say, Richard Nixon—who closed a 1971 speech marking “the beginning of the Bicentennial Era” with a nod to Brown’s death: “[S]peaking to no one in particular, he said, ‘This is a beautiful country.’ If John Brown, with his own death imminent, just before the tragic War Between the States, could say that, then even more we today can truly say: America is a beautiful country…”

For Nixon to be able to employ these words in such a way, it’s surely important to believe both that Brown was “speaking to no one in particular,” and that his speech unambiguously referred and deferred to the authority of the state that was about to kill him. In this vision, John Brown’s life comes to an appropriate end while the beauty of the state goes marching on—a tragic beauty, perhaps, but also a self-evident one, and all-consuming. Du Bois, in contrast, pushes Brown’s words out beyond the state and onto the land, and shows him speaking, very particularly, to a history and a future of resistance against the state unfolding across that land:

John Brown rode out into the morning. ‘This is a beautiful land,’ he said. It was beautiful. Wide, glistening, rolling fields flickered in the sunlight. Beyond, the Shenandoah went rolling northward, and still afar rose the mighty masses of the Blue Ridge, where Nat Turner had fought and died, where Gabriel had looked for refuge and where John Brown had builded his awful dream.

Du Bois’s critical “beyond,” his refusal to let Brown’s words end with the state, and his orchestration of an echo of shared struggle across the land are consistent with a biographical approach which continually foregrounds the importance of the natural world in the development of Brown’s life and thought. And which returns several times to Brown’s beliefin no way a figurative or a rhetorically exaggerated onethat God had intended the Allegheny Mountains, “from the foundation of the world,” to serve as a refuge for those fleeing slavery. There’s something here that feels strikingly like Manifest Destiny in reverse: a land imbued at once with guilt and with the seeds of an unsettling absolution.

Du Bois also quotes William A. Phillips’s report that Brown, on one night spent under a Kansas sky in the summer of 1856, “condemned the sale of land as a chattel.” Another historian suggests that an error in transcription substituted “land” for “man,” but I’m not so sure. In any case, I would suggest that in amplifying Brown’s respect for the land and its emancipatory possibility over and against the state, Du Bois’s text—though it has little to say directly about the genocide of indigenous populations—sketches a drive for abolition that leaves crucial space open for the work of decolonization and climate justice. Such an openness quietly expresses itself in the difference between “a beautiful land” and “a beautiful country”; which might be compared to the difference between a sentence like “Give us back our land” and a sentence like “We want our country back.”

On June 11 of this year, Donald Trump was at a rally in Tampa, Florida, where his supporters began to chant “Build that wall” with such passion that he was prevented from continuing his speech. Faced with an enthusiasm for containment that had become temporarily uncontainable, Trump stepped back, gave the crowd a quiet thumbs-up, clapped along with their chant as he walked away from the podium, and hugged one of three American flags displayed behind it. This wordless embrace brought the crowd’s noise to a crest and then took it down. It was generally recognized for a moment that a flag meant a wall. Trump returned in triumph to the podium and summed up the moment: “Folks. Ready? America first. Very simple. America first.” That settled the question.

Hours after Trump hugged a flag in Tampa, a hundred miles away, forty-nine people were dead and another fifty-three wounded at the hands of one would-be police officer and a team of authorized police. The victims overwhelmingly looked like those whom Trump’s supporters demand to see on the other side of a wall (and whom President Obama has been putting there); and, as Che Gossett writes, their deaths were inseparable from “a context and cartography of U.S. colonial power in relation to Puerto Rico.”

Two days later it was Flag Day. On social media and offline there was an awful overdetermination in the air, with the specifically Latinx and LGBT context of the shooting stifled by echoes of Paris and Brussels and the extra resonance of the centennial of a lesser-known national holiday. George W. Bush, standing for the political establishment supposedly worlds away from Trump’s nativism, took the opportunity to post four sentences on Facebook in which he found his own way of putting America first, or his own way of saying that America is a beautiful country. The victims of the Pulse shooting literally figure here as “others.” The words “Latina,” “Latino,” “gay,” and “homophobia” are absent, but the word “freedom” appears four times, once in each sentence. (Now, I would suggest that the late revelation of Omar Mateen’s targeting for entrapment by a voracious post-2001 FBI means that George W. Bush bears a degree of personal responsibility for the Pulse massacre that might not have been anticipated. Even if that weren’t the case, though, there would be violence in this erasure.) Trump, meanwhile, merely repeated “AMERICA FIRST” on Flag Day, because he’s a machine built to repeat it. But his fans were circulating the same fact that his butler loves to recite: it was his birthday.

I wholeheartedly accept and endorse the symbolic conjunction of Donald Trump’s birthday with Flag Day. And, in the middle of a month when I’ve walked around a segregated Michigan city and seen flags lingering at half-mast and it’s become impossible for me to disentangle the Orlando deaths thereby commemorated from the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and millions of others, I want to take a moment to revisit some thoughts from six months ago. In the aftermath of an encounter with a white supremacist Trump had placated at another rally, struggling to process what had been an overwhelming experience, I wrote a post which, in retrospect, came closer than I intended to painting Trump as an exception. It approached exactly the claim I had hoped to avoid, namely that “society must be defended” against Donald Trump, when—for whatever it’s worth, and however difficult it might remain for me to absorb it and keep thinking with it—some of the intellectual work that has meant the most to me over the last two years has been work uncovering a constitutive antiblackness in American (and global) civil society, and a concomitant need for that society, as such, to end. And when every new day seems to uncover more.

So I would maintain that a good word for what burns through at moments like the rally in Tampa—a fine label, if not for the personal beliefs of a New York billionaire, then for the forces he has so effectively mobilized—is “fascism.” But I would set alongside that label the claim (commonly attributed to Walter Benjamin by way of Žižek, although the exact provenance is unclear) that every fascism indexes a failed revolution. And alongside the image of Trump hugging the Stars and Stripes in Florida in 2016, I would be inclined to set the image of John Brown in Chatham in 1858, on the verge of sparking a war between the states to be fought in many ways under his name, “declar[ing] emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes.” I want to hold two ideas here simultaneously, which Du Bois helps me to remember. First, in thinking through my own life as a beneficiary of white supremacy, John Brown is an ideal and a guiding light. Second, the violence that built and sustains the world I inhabit, from the Civil War through Reconstruction to Jim Crow to COINTELPRO to “superpredators” to President Trump and beyond, is the long index of a failed revolution. And the failure that might be flagged here is in an attempt at abolition which put America first, which was unready to abandon, even in martyrdom, the image of the beautiful country.

no flag

This is why I know I still have so much to learn from Bree Newsome’s action in South Carolina a year ago, from the way she responded to mass death not by raising one American flag but by grounding another. I remember the magnificence of the negative space where the Stars and Bars had lately hung, the pole then supporting only a June sky. And I remember getting into online arguments last summer, pointless arguments with Confederate apologists who seemed to find one trolling tactic more and more appealing as the summer went on. Wasn’t it absurd, they would ask, to get so worked up over that flag and not the Stars and Stripes? When they both stood for the histories they stood for? When one had flown over a secessionary movement for only five years, and the other had flown over a slaveholding nation for a century and more?

As if that were an irresistible argument for leaving all the flags up, rather than for taking them all down. As if an unspoken universal faith in the Stars and Stripes settled everything. Of course a refusal to admit any reason why the Confederate battle flag might have represented a more urgent strategic target in South Carolina in 2015 is a refusal of the obvious; but there’s no need to go as far back as the Chatham Convention to find radical voices explaining why the American flag, too, stands for terror. That can be heard from Newsome herself. There is no Law of Conservation of Political Energy here: the removal of one racist banner is not the de facto raising of another (just as opposition to one politician is not necessarily the endorsement of another, is not the endorsement of anyone).

And if John Brown, with his own death imminent, could say so, then even more we today can truly say: This is a beautiful land, and America is not a beautiful country. And if John Brown believed that “the old flag was good enough for him,” then I think one of the achievements of Du Bois’s biography—a book I would recommend to anyone in 2016—is to establish so thoroughly the broad sense in which “John Brown was right” that his wrongness on that point becomes all the clearer.

April 2, 2013

Ghosts are real: Nevada

I’m a little hesitant to write too much about Imogen Binnie’s debut novel Nevada, published this month by the wonderful transgender-focused Topside Press—partly because the experience of reading an advance copy was an unusually charged and emotionally complex one for me, which I’m still processing and which I’m still not sure how to write about, two months later; but also because Nic Bravo wrote a beautiful review on Tumblr which you should probably read first, and, furthermore, Stephen Ira has already called dibs on writing the definitive critical analysis, and who am I to try anything that would approach violating a double-doggy pact with Stephen Ira?

But I wanted to add one more voice to the chorus (and I’m sure it will only continue to grow) heralding Nevada as a gorgeous, hilarious, important, and, under the right conditions, very possibly lifesaving book. Binnie’s writing has mattered a lot to me since I first encountered it in one of the inaugural articles for PrettyQueer, which was a dialogue between her and the site’s managing editor, the great Red Durkin, on the existence or nonexistence of ghosts. In that piece Imogen lobbies strongly and convincingly on ghosts’ behalf, because they’re great, and because who are we to determine, really, what’s real and what isn’t?—“Fuck a scarcity paradigm.” And Nevada is not only a novel suffused with the fierce generosity of “fuck a scarcity paradigm”—it’s not only a radical and empathetic critique of the psychological and emotional and gender scarcity paradigms embedded in American culture. I think it’s also, in its own similarly funny but serious way, a further treatise on different forms of ghostliness. It may not be irrelevant that Star City, Nevada (the setting for the story’s second half, where Binnie’s protagonist Maria Griffiths, fleeing a personal crisis in New York, enters the life of a young person named James) is, outside the pages of the novel, a ghost town. Beyond Star City, though, I think Nevada as a whole finds new and unique ways of being attuned to hauntedness, to the affective reality of being haunted, whether by past lives and selves, romantic attachments, normativities, fantasies, gambles taken or untaken, or necessary coping mechanisms that have hardened into obstacles to life.

Which is why, for whatever it’s worth, I would recommend Nevada to anyone interested in literary explorations of cruel optimism, as well as to anyone of trans or queer experience, or anyone sympathetic to such experience, or maybe even anyone who, as Maria might put it, has ever felt weird, because “who doesn’t feel weird?” I’m hoping everyone reads it, I think, is what I’m saying. It’s available through the Topside Press online store and in bookstores starting right about now.

November 25, 2011

A map of the country

“So we heard the proposition last night, ‘We need to dismantle the United States.’ This sounds kind of preposterous and silly to most people but the question is, ‘Why? Why does it sound so absurd to say that we don’t want to live under a settler state founded on genocide and slavery?’ That the proposition seems silly shows the extent to which we have so completely normalized genocide that we cannot actually imagine a future without genocide.”—Andrea Smith, March 2011, at Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide

Occupy Thanksgiving: Decolonize! / DisOccupy / IMAGINE OTHERWISE

January 25, 2011

On “meanings and reverberations” and the writing of space out of film

Peter Bogdanovich gives an account of “film poetry” that “few readers of Poetry would dispute”:

What distinguishes the real film poets is their use of the camera to convey meanings and reverberations beyond the geography of place or the needs of the narrative.  Camera placement, and therefore the composition, the lens choices, the lighting of the image, the camera’s movement, the particular juxtaposition of images, are all in the grammar for conveying hidden aspects of the tale or people—exposing a part of the theme, or the true meaning beyond simply the plot—endorsing, subverting, enriching the more obvious qualities of setting or performance.  This is why the finest filmmakers are generally always remembered for certain of their unique and personal images.  Among the other poets [in addition to Jean Renoir], D.W. Griffith comes to mind, and F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Robert Flaherty, and Orson Welles.

So, that list: not very exciting, not very surprising that Bogdanovich should have a lengthy male canon of “real film poets” who are 90% white and whose total output ended (with Welles’s F for Fake) in 1974.  But I’m fascinated by the definition in the first sentence, and especially the attempt to detach “meanings and reverberations” from “the geography of place”—I think partly because it feels to me like such a good example of the kind of disavowal of film and its capabilities that we’re forced to make when we decide to get all programmatic about what counts and what doesn’t count as real poetry onscreen.  “Camera placement, and therefore”: in this paragraph, everything follows from the location of the camera in space, and somehow it follows from there that “geography” must be transcended?

There’s an implicit statement about the aims or the borders of poetry itself, here, that seems related to Daniel’s points on the ideological exclusion of experimental voices at the New Yorker.  A film historian as knowledgeable as Bogdanovich obviously doesn’t need to be informed that there are plenty of film and video artists whose work isn’t grounded in “the needs of narrative” at all, and is concerned either not at all, or almost exclusively, with “the geography of place.”  (So much is already being cut away even in the claim that the real poets of film are distinguished by their “use of the camera…”)  Yet it seems to go without saying that a conversation about film poetry should be limited to popular narrative filmmaking.  If the goal is to go beyond geography and narrative with a camera, then there have to be a camera, geography, and narrative.

Even within the terms of that discussion (which is a fine discussion to have), there’s plenty to dispute.  It’s certainly true that I find it harder to imagine someone describing a mainstream story-based film that happened to be computer-animated, for example, as “film poetry,” probably for a big constellation of reasons that it would be worth trying to unpack.  (And I’m sure there are obvious counterexamples, and I’m sure part of this difficulty for me would just be my lingering bad feelings about the James Franco Howl, where I thought the attempt to get to the heart of a preexisting poem by self-consciously ditching an established “geography of place” for an orange-gray digital cartoon world fell very flat.  Not that the courtroom with Jon Hamm, or indeed Franco as Ginsberg, felt much less flat to me.)  And this is definitely a nice opportunity to say that my favorite critique of mainstream narrative filmmaking as the production of “unique and personal images,” and its always interestingly unsuccessful efforts to erase (political) geography, would be Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself—which, I was recently really happy to see, someone uploaded to YouTube.  But it occurred to me that I was also jarred by Bogdanovich’s claim for an even more subjective reason, which is that of course I’ve been in the position of finding the language of some narrative films so beautiful or so quietly implicatively rich that I described their images and effects to other people or to myself by failing to describe them, and saying the equivalent of, “It’s like film poetry”; and the first three examples that came to mind (which might just be the same as saying “three of my favorite movies,” or maybe not) were The Piano, Days of Heaven, and Wendy and Lucy. Which are, I realize, three movies that not only basically refuse, to the extent that they can, to locate many of their “meanings and reverberations” “beyond the geography of place,” but that insist—visually, affectively, narratively, politically—on the impossibility, ever, of transcending that geography.  Bodies are stuck where they don’t want to be, and the painful effort of getting from one point to another is what’s under consideration.  Maps that are hard to read, not enough money to facilitate movement, vehicles that break, objects that block, companions who get lost, progress impeded by landscape and mud and dirt that sticks to shoes and clothes.  The geography of place absorbs so many hopeful reverberations, dully, the way an ocean absorbs a piano.

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