A monthly note from our editors with some thoughts on theory, dilemma, and the next big thing.
Past Letters Entries
Nightmares of Another Life
The Downward Spiral
To The Swamp
Make It Through
Too Close to Call
This Is Make-Believe
Letters by Tyler Reinhard
While the Getting is Good
What if the path to real political agency for the radical and marginalized is a rejection of politics itself?
“And the house Negro always looked out for his master, when the master’s house caught on fire, he’d try to put the fire out. But then you have the field Negro, who lived in huts, has nothing to lose. If the master’s house caught on fire, they’d pray for a strong wind to come along.”
I’ve been a radical publisher for over a decade. Throughout that time, I’ve dedicated a lot of energy to trying to understand how radical ideas travel in and out of the milieus which develop and refine them. How are ideas understood by those outside of our contexts? How are our radical ideas informed by broader cultural phenomena and trends? What does it mean when we say someone is “woke”? When someone just “gets it”. Likewise, what does it mean to look at something that exists in the heart of the mainstream, and say from the position of the radical that “I get it” politically ... but also in a deeper, more desperately seditious sense?
Some maintain that there are universal human tendencies toward radical rejections of society – that humans are in our very nature opposed to being governed, to the unfair, to oppressive regimes of power – and I tend to disagree. I’m always suspicious of arguments of human nature, but more specifically I worry we might be overlooking something important and useful: there are traditions of opposition, legacies which carry on from generation to generation whether deliberately fostered as such or passed on incidentally through cultural habits and consequences.
I wanted to wait until after Black History Month to outline my thoughts on the current wave of discussions around Black Power and legacy. For me, Black History Month is always a sarcastic affair. The pandering and public-service-announcement atmosphere of the commemorative month seems to push black radicalism into the past. Insisting that we’ve made our progress, we’ve integrated, we’ve done away with all the real problems. That what remains to be done is simply a matter of accounting: if only there were more black sitcoms, more black-owned businesses, more black politicians we’d finally be past the whole race thing. But what ever happened to black radicals? Where are they now? Are we absolutely sure the new political efforts rising out of the #BlackLivesMatter movement represent the inheritance of Black Power? More and more, I feel like the answer is no. I’m not convinced activism, and the imperative for social justice reforms with it, represent anything to do with the black radicalism of the 1960s that changed the story of black life in America, and the world, forever.
"I've come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house."
Sure, the Black Panthers had a particular ideological position (one which was not always so sympathetic, tbh), but more than anything, the late 60s and early 70s represent the overwhelming hopelessness regarding the prospect of black Americans accumulating any form of meaningful political representation through the traditional electoral process. Revolution wasn’t quite an adjective yet. It meant something salient and direct: a separation from the United States, a secession, a nationalism, an evacuation, an escape.
Then, Maoist revolutions were popping off across the global south and it was a time of (foolish?) optimism. The Black Power movements insisted that integration was impossible, deadly, cowardly. For its advocates, Black Liberation necessarily refused the established political system, and refused to play the game of electoral gambles. It disidentified with America itself, and across the country millions of black and brown, poor and marginalized, sympathetic and insurgent subjectivities agreed. The point had been made: America was not and would never be for us.
But this revolutionary separatism would soon fail, defeated by a truly cruel and brutal counter-insurgency waged by the FBI (same people who want to get in your iPhones, by the way) through COINTELPRO, police atrocity, white vigilantism, recuperation, and even assassination. What was left behind, after the black fighters went to prison, on the lamb, into graves, or into the Heroin shooting galleries, was a community devastated.
"We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible. When reactionary forces crush us, we must move against these forces, even at the risk of death."
Today I wonder: What does it mean to completely reject assimilation into national governance, then fail to bring about political change by other means? Who among us identifies as an American proudly? Who among us trusts the government to represent our interests? No one I know. Finally, what does it mean that our cultural icons, some of the most influential cultural producers in the world have embraced the rhetoric of Black Liberation, whether aesthetically or literally with their words and actions? Is this new turn to revolutionary nostalgia just a phase of late capitalism? Is it “recuperation”? Where did Black Power go, anyway?
It’s not that the mainstream media’s interpretations of Black Power imagery and politics are too tame, or are in bad taste. It’s just that there is something critical missing from them. It’s irresponsible to narrativize the legacy of Black Power without observing that although particular ruptures fail (there was no great revolutionary separation) the legacy continues. Where is the recognition that black radicalism survives in contemporary hip-hop culture? Kendrick’s virtual discussion with Tupac at the end of To Pimp A Butterfly is not just a creative exercise. He’s revealing for us the trials and tribulations of passing the torch from one generation to the next, directing our attention toward the violent interruptions society makes on black politics in the United States. In the sample, Tupac describes a pattern of defeat and submission, a ‘burnout’ which haunts black America. Tupac had his own personal struggles, but there is no denying he was, quite directly, a part of the Black Power movement. His mother was a Panther, his stepfather was a member of the Black Liberation Army and is still in prison serving a sentence. His theory of Thug Life outlined a discursive examination of Black Power in the early 90s, precisely when (post-crack) and where (the ghettoized violence of poverty and urban gangs) academics at the time maintained that the Black Power movement had finally vanished. Kendrick locates himself directly in this unseen legacy, mourning the loss of Tupac, and the advice he might have given to the next generation of political agents.
Recently, there have been a lot of political conversations about struggle and cultural performance. The work of Beyoncé, Kanye, and Kendrick, to name just a few, have sparked nationwide boycotts (by police), a thousand thinkpieces, and reignited the conversation about race relations, police violence, and white supremacy. The twittersphere raves about Beyoncé’s subtle references, about Kendrick’s interpolation of Jazz and Tupac. Mainstream outlets are publishing explainers about the Black Panthers, teaching ‘kids these days’ about the long struggle for black liberation in this country. Pretending as if a few short decades ago they hadn’t themselves been complicit in the repression, as if there weren’t still political prisoners from those conflicts held against their will in federal penitentiaries.
"The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire! We don't need no water, let that motherfucker burn!"
There is no denying the political and insurgent legacy of hip-hop. Public Enemy, KRS-One, Queen Latifah, Ice-T, NWA, Tupac, even ‘softer’ groups like De La Soul, and so many others inherited a political environment tense and warped by the post-revolutionary, post-COINTELPRO, post-psychedelic. Their work is explicitly political in a way the modern listener might find tacky, but it's classic, golden age stuff. These early hip-hop artists shouldered the burden of presenting critiques of police brutality, economic inequality, class oppression, the intentional sabotage of black communities by corporations and the state, etc, to the rest of America. Ideas inherited, refined, and spread by the black radicals of the 60s. This representation was real – arguably real in ways traditional political representation was and is not. Imagine if instead of Ice-T's release of Cop Killer in the wake of the LA riots, a few black radicals had positions on behalf of California in the US House of Representatives instead!
It is possible that, in the wake of the failure of the Black Power revolutionary experiment, a new movement was formed. A borderless network with every other characteristic of what was envisioned by black nationalism: patriotism, identity, domestic and foreign concerns, political maneuvering, at times military capacity, complete with political representatives and diplomats. What if, by rejecting traditional politics, the Black Power movement had rendered an entirely new structure of governance? One which could be maintained and administered through cultural power, rather than legislative and judicial actions? One that could exert outwardly, adjudicate inwardly, and appoint representatives. What if the cultural hegemony sometimes described as Black Excellence is in fact a political organization? A pessimist one, with no great program for capturing territory, or distributing economic power – merely a means of political cohesion under the regime of structural white supremacy.
Imagine that network builds its power through cultural production instead of electoral representation. Imagine politicians write songs instead of laws. Imagine its citizenry ignores the politicians barking on the television screens. Imagine its citizenry dodges the police instead of looking to them for safety. Imagine its citizenry has a (black) marketplace, an economy completely and separately its own, upon which other countries both depend and fight over. Imagine its citizenry has political leadership, who are sought in times of tragedy, sorrow, national opportunity, and victory. Imagine, when the vulnerable, young, outnumbered are killed by foreign powers there is (rightly or wrongly) retaliation, attacks, arsons, looting. Imagine when a loss is suffered, this nation mourns together.
As Chris Rock paces the stage at the Oscars, leveling with the American people (and the world) about racial tension in the US around representation, I can't help but wonder if he's giving us something President Obama cannot. If he is opening up the windows in a forgotten house, letting some light in, letting everything breathe. He stutters a little bit, as he explains why people are mad about the representation of people of color in Hollywood, as if he's off script and improvising. He dodges all the obvious clichés and speaks from his heart, he leaps over all the absurdity (poking fun at Will Smith for the millions he made on Wild Wild West) to land on the real shit: police gunning kids down. Of course, Rock's work on stage was not, like, the cusp of radical interventions. But just remember the current state of politics in this country: the Democratic candidates are arguing about how to end decades of racist law enforcement policy which they themselves enacted, and the Republicans are pretending racial tensions aren't at historic highs by bickering about how heavily to carpet bomb Syria. When it comes to discussing race in America, Chris Rock was outperforming the entire political system.
Flash back to the Superbowl, Beyoncé marches to Formation dressed in a not-so-subtle mix of Black Panther regalia. Flash back to Kendrick Lamar at the Grammies, where his performance of The Blacker the Berry takes place inside of a contemporary prison, and ends with a massive on-stage fire. Flash back to that time Nicki Minaj said that the prison system was like slavery "or something worse". Flash back to Kanye, and his slave auction.
Let's suppose that instead of pursuing political representation through the US Government, disenfranchised poor Americans have gradually vested more and more political fidelity to prominent cultural figures, like musicians, artists, writers, comedians, and actors. Let’s suppose black celebrity and black culture in general has inherited this legacy of post-revolutionary nihilism, graduating from the tacky socio-economics 101 of Public Enemy and the graduate theory of Tupac’s Thug Life to an elevated curriculum of power and subjugation in the American mechanism of political thought. Let's suppose that when Chris Rock delivers an earnest monologue on Hollywood racism, it's political at least as much and if not more politically influential than Obama's addresses on structural racism and economic inequality. Let's suppose that all of the massively influential cultural producers who reference Black Power or liberation are not unlike politicians administering a system of governance. Suppose that politically-charged radical imagery is not merely a reference to moments in the past, but literally part of the legacy of that radicalism itself.
With me so far?
Now let’s suppose that alternate system of governance begins to act on the rest of the country. Can a candidate like Bernie Sanders become president without an advocate like Killer Mike? What if Apple needed Dr. Dre? What if Samsung needs to buy Tidal. Would anyone watch the MTV Music Video Awards if Nicki Minaj hadn’t clapped back at Miley? Or if Kanye hadn’t confronted Taylor Swift? What happens when white kids across suburban America have more respect for black celebrities than they do for white politicians? The government’s approval rating has never been so historically low. Like I always say, in the future, this country will be run by people who grew up listening to Kendrick Lamar on repeat.
What remains to be done?
Black Power survives on the cultural. Through language, through art, through attitude and affect. It has fled or expired from its early Maoist nationalism, it has even slipped away from the “Black” subjectivity itself. It is reproduced by everyone. Black Power is Dual Power. It both coexists with and opposes state power. It is a position against the United States as an idea, but is itself a kind of state.
Right now, someone somewhere is celebrating a new job with her friend, shouting, “... go on! Get it, girl!” An acknowledgment of success despite a system rigged against our favor.
The token community liaison explains to the news anchor why we need to be less materialistic in our communities, because otherwise we will not be taken seriously.
Right now, someone somewhere turns up the stereo, clapping to her friend, “... go on! Get it, girrrrl!”, as they bounce and twerk at a club or in a living room, thriving together on raw sexual energy despite a system of crushing norms attempting to manipulate and fabricate the beauty, consent, and agency of our desires.
Marketing firms want the famous musician to shake her butt more when the camera drops low, because they want to show us what we want to have, not how we want to move.
Right now, someone somewhere is typing "you get it, gurl!!" in the comment field of a friend's post about falling into new love, a reminder that we can find each other, despite layers of deep and paralyzing alienation.
Tabloids dissect and explode the relationships of celebrities, because our relationships are only valuable to them when they disintegrate.
Right now, someone somewhere is walking into a party with stolen booze, or a pizza taken from work, or a bag of cosmetics boosted from a mall. Get it, girl.
The CCTV cameras are almost always pointed at the register, because more than anyone else, companies fear their employees.
As I watch Kanye West debut his collection Yeezy Season 3 for Adidas live on Tidal, I feel an altogether unexpected sense of historical consequence. The stream stutters and breaks under the exhaustive load of 20 million other viewers, and rigged cameras swim through the Madison Square Gardens spectacle that Kanye and collaborator Vanessa Beecroft have meticulously composed. Nearly one thousand models, most of whom are aspiring black models and artists (grossly and somewhat infamously underpaid), stood collected, strong, vulnerable, and broken for nearly two hours. Together, the models appear as living sculptures. With practically no movement and to the soundtrack of Kanye's then-unreleased album The Life Of Pablo, their bodies convey references to the terror and dignity of black history in America.
During the big reveal, I feel my stomach wrench as if I’m surveying a slave auction, the solemn and quietly violent affairs where, for centuries, African slaves were sold individually or in batches to wealthy white landowners. The models are nearly motionless, draped in the legible skin-tone and organic color stories for which Kanye is known. Later on, as the camera operators walk through the platform, the models and their shapely but gently-curved lines inspire a kind of vintage black-is-beautiful sentiment at once nodding to the desegregated workplace, the renowned Black Power salute given at the 1968 Olympics, and the Black Panthers marching and protesting in formation.
The references don't stop there, Kanye has captured the contemporary as well: his drab looks lean on stage like hand-me-downs, sagging on waists and shoulders, and if you squint you can just barely see the black silhouettes, the poor kids running wild on the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore or Oakland, fighting back riot police and looting shops.
Other looks contextualize the Afrofuturism that has moved from avant-garde to mainstream so quickly: bold color-block patterns that seem as if they could be spread out on a Masai blanket in some Kenyan bazaar have been fashioned into Star Trek ensign uniforms and alien space suits. Each “visitor” sprinkled amongst the urban peasantry of his other more wearable puffy coats, tattered outerwear, and muted sweatpants.
The show itself feels amateur. The wide cinematography work is by no means pushing boundaries. The lack of movement becomes tedious. The stadium feels too big for the show. The audience seems ambivalent, despite Kanye’s insistence that his work is thorough, exhausting, and excellent. The show feels like Kanye has hijacked something more official, like some kind of protester storming the stage, demanding to be heard. The awkward sophomoric atmosphere becomes a part of the show and the Kanye meme folds into itself.
Meanwhile, Kanye himself is bouncing manic in the booth at the center of a gleeful throng, grinning from ear to ear, raising and swinging his arms to his new album like some kind of mad conductor. I quietly process this pageant of everything black missing from fashion: faces, history, power, tragedy. The Nina Simone sample loops, the camera pans. FML begins, and the camera closes in on the faces on the stage: faces broken, sad, angry, full of loss and the absence of hope, swelling with pride yet completely stripped of power or agency. This is me. This is so many of us. This is radical representation. My nose pinches and my neck feels flush. The stream blurs as my eyes mist up. I get it.
As an anarchist, I’m weary of power reproduced in the way I’ve described. However, I feel like my friends and I can’t examine what’s going on in the world today without acknowledging both the reality and surreality of Black Power in popular culture. This thought experiment has been useful not only to resume deliberations about what happened to Black Power, where did it go? but also to consider the potential ramifications of my answer to that question. What if it is possible to contest the dominion of the state, and the structure of oppressions like white supremacy through media itself? What if militant struggle also follows from cultural intervention, instead of merely inspiring it? As a publisher, obviously these questions are paramount and very delicate things to answer.
This is The Get It Issue, where we try to wrap ourselves around tough ideas. Where we suppose that one doesn’t have to be ‘radicalized’ to ‘get it’, and find new conspirators in a battle for secret affinities. This month, we struggle with the possibility that some who are rich and powerful share our sentiments about politics and the economy. We mourn our lack of strategic positioning, but celebrate our survival nonetheless. Just how much should we expropriate? He can get it. They can get it. She can get it. You get a fur. You get a fur.