For the Incomplete Gesture, From a Black Girl Writing With Uncertain Instruments
By Wahneema Lubiano | @Wahneema | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Tuesday, November 15, 2016.
To those who are here from the other places, from the othered places:
I spent all of election night and the next morning emailing and talking on the phone to my students, to family members, and to friends, sorting throughout the night an accumulation of what I thought, what I felt, and the inadequate bulwark of my need to produce a sufficiency of analysis, of critique, of anger, to hold off the night terrors of paralysis, a paralysis that shamed me, to hold off the impulse to an unearned despair.
I am a woman of a certain age and declining mobility; I teach at a non-public university; I am a citizen of variegated insufficiency. I feel no easy resting place for confidence, in this moment or any others, that I will be able to assist myself or anyone else. But against the consistent fear of those driven to the U.S. because of a history that the U.S. helped make as well as the fear of those here already yet marked by other vulnerabilities, I am called on to say, to do, something. My awareness of the weight of the history of this present and the serendipity of my education, of my experience in my natal community, requires me to speak to those others, those othered, right now.
The struggle is big enough, is complex enough, is both raggedly diffuse and continually sharpened by circumstances that I could throw myself into it or onto it, and land where something needs to be done. And I do, within the scope of my limitations even given the existence of white supremacy, of capitalism, of misogyny, of homophobia, of physical force allied with resentment.
But it was coming into audible and visual contact over and over with those who are more vulnerable than I am right now—something that should not be mistaken for false (or true) bravado because I am “documented,” wear no hijab, have a bathroom birthright, and can provide at least some proofs of heterosexuality—that prompted my willingness to pick up the safety pin as one response among many.
I could imagine myself picking it up, not with the awareness of power that comes (as a vague memory from my youth) with wrapping my hands around a baseball bat, but with awareness of how the pin disappears into the fuzziness of ordinary domestic existence, with an understanding that it generally serves to hold together something or things until firmer measures of adherence can be secured. This was a moment when the solid heft and weight of a bat or a club was seductive, I admit, because I grew up with brothers, was trained to think of a real fight as aestheticized by their weapons of choice.
I was captured instead by the whimsy of the pin’s limited stability and general availability, by its limited decipherability even as its metallic make-up suggested more strength than might actually exist or be deployable especially in a moment when I wanted my anger not only for momentum but for a healing of the shame of my insufficiency.
That it might speak because of its use in another place was fine; it’s only a safety pin, after all. But it spoke something not always easily definable or graphable, pointed, even if not necessarily sharp—but certainly not subtle. Its use was weird for me. I generally prefer to fail at analysis, at political strategizing, or anger management, than to fail at speaking the messy languages of slogans, of public speech and gestures, things that can’t easily work to ensure measureable commitment to a struggle, that open up more questions, even more suspicions, than work to provide the complete bona fides of political comradery.
On the other hand, I found that I needed something that could be close at hand, that could be part of an argument, an incitement, a possible, albeit limited, lingua franca of political caring from a monolingual speaker of American English at the scene of only this most recent emergence of U.S. political ill-will within the conditions of our capitalism. The injured and deadly self-regard of rearticulated and unarticulated hatreds, was immediately before me. It was a way to hold a place for the much more work and struggle necessary but that could, in the meantime, say to someone I don’t know, to whom I owe whatever I can do without the useless gesture, for example, of my handing her a syllabus as proof of my good intentions, or presenting my bona fides from other arenas of struggle, and without regard to my ability to more clearly enunciate, the fact that I want to help, if I can.
I am at peace with the incompleteness of this gesture, with not being able to document why others have pinned themselves, with not being able to see clearly the trajectory of this unsubtle speech, with not being able to finish the argument, or even know for sure the terms of its reception.
That I’ve had some fleeting moments of connection, often unspoken but gestural, helps me remember, in those close movements of passing, of hesitation and smile, that I offer what I want to have come into the world. If we want comrades, we must be comrades. The weight of that knowing is cushioned by the possibility of tiny connections of which I might never have proof.
Wahneema Lubiano is Associate Professor of Literature and African & African-American Studies at Duke University. She is the editor of the acclaimed The House that Race Built.