On Losing Black Lives – Safiya Umoja Noble

WHEN I DIE

when i die i hope no one who ever hurt me cries
and if they cry i hope their eyes fall out
and a million maggots that had made up their brains
crawl from the empty holes and devour the flesh
that covered the evil that passed itself off as a person
that i probably tried
to love

– Nikki Giovanni

On March 8, 2017, in recognition of International Women’s Day, Rachel Ricketts wrote a piece for the Huffington Post that outlined the contours of the unending grief and loss that Black women are subject to in our struggle to realize social, political and economic equality. Her essay reminded me of the tremendous burdens of intersectional feminism, and what protracted struggle to realize equality can mean: a never-ending sense of despair that we can feel as we see the powerful entrenchments of racism and sexism at both structural and personal levels:

Being black and feminist ain’t a walk in the park…I am TIRED. And I don’t mean “worked a long day and need to put my feet up” kinda tired. I mean “three plus decades of fighting sexism and racism combined, meaning you take it from all angles and literally all spaces and there is no place on the entire Earth you can escape oppression or its dire consequences except maybe in your dreams every so often” kinda tired.[1]

Ricketts suggestion reminded me that to be Black and woman is an echo of the words of James Baldwin in his critique of white supremacy, wherein he once said that “to be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”[2]

Indeed, to be Black in the United States, and beyond, is often to be in a state of grief too. Grief is a holding pattern, a place we keep circulating through, with each new headline of violence or loss of life. Beyond the spectacle of the news cycles that traffic in our death, which I wrote about for The Black Scholar[3] after the death of Trayvon Martin, and upon the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, grief and loss linger like a foggy morning in Fresno. It covers us, and takes a long time to burn off. We count the losses. We name the losses, and when those losses focus only on the men who are lost, we are reminded by scholar-activist, Kimberlé Crenshaw to #SayHerName and remember the losses of Black women’s lives too. We rage over the losses. We grieve the losses. We seek reparation for the losses.

Loss of Black life is not new. It’s a fundamental contradiction of the wealth of American empire – an empire so great it stands in direct order of magnitude to the losses of land and life it takes to create and sustain it. The gravity of such holocaust (which often goes unnamed as such for African Americans, the Black diaspora, and indigenous Native Americans), can foment a loss of memory, and of cultural resistance. New words that deny historical and contemporary oppression, such as “diversity” and “inclusion” are now regularly invoked to cloak, and even erase, the details and efforts to recover what has been lost to enslavement, occupation, redlining, and denials of human and civil rights. Initiatives that foreground individual rights to the detriment of communities denied enfranchisement, circulate under the influence of neoliberalism, and deprive us of a language of recovery.

I recently discussed with Yusef Omowale, Executive Director of the Southern California Library in South Los Angeles, the struggles we face in maintaining the political and intellectual history of Black Los Angeles. He gave a thought-provoking lecture to my students about the role of community archives, their importance, and how they function in the struggle for a recognition of Black life, and in service of liberation. He reminded us that love is at the epicenter of our struggles for justice, in ways that are often suppressed from mainstream discourses about what Black struggle is all about.

Love, at the epicenter of justice, is a radical notion I first learned of from Nikki Giovanni. Her poem, When I Die, is a clarion call – at least to me – for recovery, and justice, which must be met by those we have loved, whom have not loved us properly or fairly in return. It could stand as metaphor for the America of our birth, with whom we Black Americans have had a complicated love toward, and that has complicated our love for one another. This is a love that does not always give, but rather takes. It took from us without a national apology, and without reparation. It is a love that celebrates and venerates our talented, but is acquitted for those of us it deems suspect.

And yet, love, we must, such that we define the terms of our struggles for lives that are rich with joy and gratitude for the experience of life itself. The burden of Black, intersectional feminism, in the spirit of Giovanni, Baldwin and Ricketts is indeed a love laden with loss, a loss that demands a reckoning, and a recovery of what we could have otherwise known.

 

 

[1] Ricketts, R. “The Grief Inherent In Being Black And Feminist” http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/rachel-ricketts/black-feminist-grief_b_15192866.html

[2] James A. Baldwin. (n.d.). AZQuotes.com. Retrieved May 01, 2017, from AZQuotes.com Web site: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/953568

[3] Noble, S. U. (2014). Trayvon, race, media and the politics of spectacle. The Black Scholar. 44(1), 12-29.

 

Photo credit: Sarah T. Roberts

Safiya Umoja Noble is an assistant professor in the Department of Information Studies in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, and holds appointments in the Departments of African American Studies, Gender Studies, and Education. Her research on the design and use of applications on the Internet is at the intersection of race, gender, culture, and technology. Her monograph, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism  explores racist and sexist algorithmic bias in search engines like Google (NYU Press, 2017). She serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, and is the co-editor of two edited books: The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Culture and Class Online with Brendesha Tynes, and Emotions, Technology & Design with Sharon Tettegah. She is the recipient of a Hellman Fellowship and the UCLA Early Career Award.