“This is the fire that terrifies our pitiful enemies. That not only are we alive but shatteringly precise in our songs and our scorn.”—Amiri Baraka
“But what I’d like to know / Is could a place like this exist, so beautiful?”—Stevie Wonder
The condition of our history is one of abject reduction—to metonyms and to misapprehensions, to causes and to effects, to trite little truisms: a surfeit of errant narratives and mnemonic devices, arrayed all of them to privilege plot, chronology, logic—rather facile conventions, loaned from literature. So Toussaint Louverture becomes shorthand for a world-historic rebellion in Haiti; “the lessons of Cuba,” an American euphemism, elides a revolution verboten to applaud; the Arab Spring is made to sound like harvest season on the Arabian Peninsula; and “ninety-nine percent” appears to denote what proportion of bacteria an antiseptic can eradicate. To suppress such protuberances in the placid passage of time—it is a predilection and pastime of the bureaucratic practitioners of our indifferent tongue, fulfillment of the sacrament for those acts of disinformation and propaganda like the public school’s and the President’s own. Finally an accumulation of large and small lies trickles down into the gnostic water supply, congealed as a translucent glaze over antiquity.
Yet the making of history in real time contradicts, righteously contests the state’s project of adulteration. The recent maneuvers of Black Lives Matter have done just this, thrumming a deterrent twitch upon the thread of ahistoric fabrication. A vigorous movement whose medium is our very streets, Black Lives Matter has been resplendently hyperactive these past few weeks, calculated consequence of the brutal, blasé homicides of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, each at the cooperating hands of white supremacy and the police state—indistinguishable institutions. Its series of demonstrations, expressed in the radical Negro tradition of marches and sit-ins, vigils and occupations, strategic disruptions and spontaneous destructions of the metropole and its favored unit the commodity—these are contemporary instances of Black ingenuity and improvisational flourish, of making a way out of no way, of the imaginative revision of ordered cosmopolitan geometries. Idiolects in the language of the will to be free, they defy nationalist incorporation precisely because they disprove the nation as possible, made untenable by its inhumane precepts, by a people who will not go on in their subjugation.
Many are autodidacts in the pedagogy of their oppression, assembled in unruly, sensitized confederation. The audacious enterprise, announced from city thoroughfares: to make knowledges practicable and publicly oriented, at once opaque to the keepers of power and available to sympathetic confrères, via instruction, intuition. Likewise their praxis, correspondent to a theory usually unknown to them—and plausibly still to be cognized. In turn one expects accounts of the juncture to resemble their referent, which is to say, to be restive, unfixed in meaning and in symbology; a philosophical bricolage; derived in concert; liquid: a novel form if not a form of the novel… But just now the fusion of epistemes declines to abate, assume shape. Whatever to become of its unsanctioned play of politic and philology, and what the fate of its exponents, accruing as they do the valence and accoutrement of revolutionaries—entirely unknown. Meantime the things we write en route to rallies, the agitations of language and politics eked out in and as flight from the repressive apparatus of the state—or as resistance to it—feel poised to be the lasting initial documents of the moment, equally art and labor. In Black life meaning-making can so occur—extemporaneously, in collaboration, under threat.
Which is the genius of Black Lives Matter, a crusade whose polyphonic eruption and semantic glut enacts a reading of a culture that in turn reads it—and perceives its own demise, lest it reconvene around new dicta, new civic arrangements. Such reflexive grammar is a revolutionary one, and has permitted Black Lives Matter to seize and to shock the national imaginary in ways not achieved since the days of Martin Luther King, Jr. Its reliance on those vectors of information both typical and unconventional (rumor, gossip, conspiracy theory; inkling and instinct; speech and sermon; social media, even) is the resourceful recourse of an insurrectional legion which daily sees scrambled its more usual technologies of intel dissemination, as officers capture organizers and their tools, and refine their own fiendish counterinsurgency.
What this has meant for us, for our comrades in struggle and in solidarity: the necessity for decentralization, itinerancy, for spontaneity and meticulous secret planning—and for more than a little encouragement of mass participation. With these our collective exercise in ungovernable expression attains a great demotic power, ongoing, concurrent, the latest installment in the same longue durée of activism comprising the decolonial victories in Africa and Asia. In effect our contemporary antagonists are but heirs-apparent to theirs, inimical issuances from a manic midcentury. Fascism, authoritarianism, racism, colonialism—no mere nouns, neutralized and incorporeal, but actually-existing formations, to which we elect to append our generation’s potent prefix: anti-. (This after an aughts aghast to discover it was not really post- anything, save in the most literal of senses.)
The apophasis is new to the zeitgeist, care of a worldwide reflex to define trenchantly against. Originating nowhere, at no nominated corner of the world—and yet aerated and airborne, enduring not a breach but an expansion—its negative affective disposition touches everywhere, bestowing mutuality. And perhaps this accounts for the sighting of strategies from one city’s fitful, convulsing demos in that of the next: the solutions to the violent escalations of law enforcement in Hong Kong are rehabilitated for use in Seattle, already the location of early experimentation with autonomy and occupation. A protestant reciprocity among protestors, in which a singular sensibility obtains simultaneously between numerous populations, transposed instantly no matter their integer of miles apart. The iteration of this process, its many symmetries across global situations, divulges another maxim, expedient to our emergent reality: that fellow-feeling is supraliminal, the shortest route between points and peoples.
That all transpires within a brisk, synchronized sequence of events: telltale sign not of globalism, only ever an embarrassing embellishment, but token of that nobler, heroic thing—transnationalism, at last something to be pro-. Complement, too, to the persuasions of a planet with open borders, now the lone supportable option, with the nation-state debunked as fancy, myth. In fact our associative human context can no longer be obscured, denied, ignored; our earthly interrelation, as atomized and dispersed confidants—far-flung commiserators—forces an essential reappraisal of values from which there can be no return, an accommodation for the newly manifest capacities of allied experiential conscription.
It remains to be seen what real and lasting victories will ensue from so much ardent endeavor, if only because the action continues even now, with no end in sight short of the meeting of our demands. As yet, it has not mattered that the violent acts of savage officers and of craven citizens were witnessed in flagrante delicto; predictably, our ruthless republic is busied with the gratifications of a sadism it purports to preclude. Minneapolis—setting of George Floyd’s final, asphyxiated minutes—will be either augur or anomaly in these indeterminate proceedings. Its intention to disband its police force is irrefutably momentous: the triumph of an unrelenting Black constituency, one which refused to see its city shrink before the staggering provocation contained in the historical, hysterical shriek—and unassailable activity—of a people alive to the ongoing exigency of their circumstance.
To grunt and sweat under a weary life as we have forever done, in Minneapolis and in ubiquity—a thing apart from the regular travail of the spirit. Indeed cause for our apostate refusal, of unjust and sordid prospects, imposed as an obscenity of meager materials; the obscenity gives rise to an ironical occasion, for our protestation to wax to the stuff of tradition. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.” The words are Walter Benjamin’s, le mot juste for an outrageous fortune. Inheritor of that fortune, Black Lives Matter improves upon its indignities, extends from its abasements, inclines to refurbished construction of Benjamin’s brocard: That those delicate prerevolutionary moments we learn of, in which the latticework of history seems to surge, up, toward some imponderable new social architecture, to reveal different proxemic choreographies—are not fabled or bygone but happening now.
Lake Micah is a writer on literature and the arts.