Thelathia Nikki Young
I am going to start by telling you something that you already know: freedom is a necessity—not the kind of freedom that allows a man to fire his gun because a teenager’s music is too loud or to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court despite a history of sexual assault and harassment. Not that freedom. I am talking about the kind of freedom that allows each of us the possibility of being, so that we can participate in the world as moral subjects and agents. Katie Cannon reminds us in Black Womanist Ethics that at the foundation of Christian ethics is the assumption of a free being.1 One needs to be free in order to make moral decisions or to have the capacity to make moral decisions. When we establish who is a subject/a human, we also establish who can be free and, likewise, when we ascribe freedom, we recognize and validate humanity. Within that process, we are also determining who can and cannot be moral. So basically, one cannot be a moral subject—or any subject at all—if one is not free.
A notion of freedom that relies solely upon rights and the capacity to offer or deny them to others actually suppresses possibilities for individual and collective performances of virtue (or moral excellence). That is why we have to disentangle nation-state-driven, empire-embedded freedom from the moral aims of people seeking emancipation from external (and internal) limits on their sense of self, choices, and livability. We need to recognize freedom as an existential condition that is accessible to and potentially experienced by every human subject. So, we need a freedom of being. That “young, gifted, and black” freedom. That “We gon’ be alright” kind of freedom. We need that “just as I am, Lord” kind of freedom. That “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” kind of freedom. That “Wakanda Forever” freedom. “I am that I am” kind of freedom. We need a freedom that emanates from an undeniable and unapologetic knowledge about, memory of, and return to who we are. This is what Ryan Coogler seemed to want to portray in Black Panther. From the depictions of technological independence to the illustrations of rituals and cultural practices, Coogler offered a vision of a free society, liberated from the constrictions of Western idealism and whiteness.
Now, in a United States context—which is basically the anti-Wakanda—such freedom is suppressed through a narrative of blackness and black people that is so ingrained in our own narratives that it is a part of the air we breathe. This narrative is about how whiteness came to be understood as the most highly functioning race and thus marked by an inherent capacity for freedom. In brief, the creation of a stable labor force, also known as slavocracy, produced and was produced by legal, political, religious, and scientific distinctions between those races who could be in service “for life” and those who could not. Racial difference supposedly pointed to increased or decreased capacity for rational thought and served as a measurement of functional capacity. The falsified distinctions “explained” why different kinds of people behaved differently and thus experienced different material realities.2 Even more, they alleged that whiteness represented full human functional capacity, while blackness represented a disabled form of human existence. This construction of race, and particularly the perversion and disabling of blackness and its link to freedom in concert with the normativizing of whiteness, is fundamentally a moral enterprise—an enterprise in which whiteness and white supremacy are moral goods.
Efforts to salvage black subjectivity, person, and being through the refusal of capture is a process of escape. It is an ethical project of fugitivity.
This moral enterprise is the work of slavery, certainly, but also the inevitable outcome of colonization. In fact, it is colonization that underwrites slavery and the proliferation of white supremacy through the systematized signification, dehumanization, and erasure of subjects turned into objects. What results through these processes of objectification is a foreclosure of possibilities that is essentially material and ontological capture. We—most people, but especially minoritized and marginalized persons—do not have the privilege of understanding our subjectivity from a starting place of freedom; instead, we have to generate our subjectivity by fleeing from the shackles of signification, objectification, dehumanization, and erasure. And so, efforts to salvage black subjectivity, person, and being through the refusal of capture is a process of escape. It is an ethical project of fugitivity. Fugitivity, as escape from foreclosure, exists in a space between liberty and freedom, a space which is not tethered simply to a historical reality or a new political future but instead to ongoing and material effects of slavery, or what Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of property.”3
Fugitivity assumes a future—an “elsewhen,” as Alison Kafer puts it in Feminist, Queer, Crip.4 The else-when that fugitivity presupposes is not merely a different time; it is also the possibility of another situation, place, and being—an else-what, -where, -who. It is a kind of space-making, an alteration of what can be by a recognition and then rejection of what is. It is more than a fleeing-from; it is a creative projection and the continual generation of freedom through the process of escape. This is what we see in Black Panther’s illustration of Wakanda and all the relational, religious, and political economies therein. Wakanda exists as a site of technological advancement in uncolonized Central Africa. Its kingdom is kept safe through isolationism and a commitment to shared governance. While the Black Panther is ultimately king, he answers to a council of elders whose experiences and investment in Wakanda reach beyond his years. In this way, Wakanda represents a different time, of sorts. We might even think of it as out of time, though set in a time that seems somehow recognizable to us. Perhaps eschaton, perhaps genesis, perhaps both.
But, I believe that the creative work of fugitivity is even more about generating an else-who than it is about projecting an else-what, -where, or -when. This is because a significant part of what happens in and through capture is the evisceration—or even before that, the preemptive exclusion—of a black person’s selfhood. And here, I don’t just mean an individual’s sense of self, though that is certainly a part of it. Rather, I mean that the concept of self, the existence of self, the very possibility of being is persistently and systematically foreclosed. One way that this foreclosure happens is through the constant misnaming—the signifying—that happens when we are named by another who claims the sole and ultimate power of subjective citation—that is, the power to name and get credit for naming our existence. Such a citation is not merely designation; it is, quite literally, denigration . . . blackening.
Ryan Coogler’s depiction of Wakanda, Black Panther, and the royal community points to a fugitive existence, as odd as that seems. Wakanda and T’Challa, its recognized prince and Black Panther, have to depend on isolationism in order to maintain the safety of an uncolonized experience. In this way, Wakanda is African, but not “Africa” so named and constructed by, in, and through whiteness. Yet, it is not quite untouched. It has not been captured fully, but it is related to the possibility of capture through its dangerous proximity to “Africa.” As a construct of whiteness’s vision of the world, “Africa” exist only as occupied or colonized. But Wakanda, while African, barely or narrowly escapes the capture of whiteness. And, some might argue that its dependence on isolation suggests no escape at all.
I do know that Wakanda and the Black Panther open up possibilities for a historical otherwise that depends upon a spiritual, conceptual, and embodied investment in a reality that testifies to an existence prior to and outside of colonization, capture, and naming. This is why I understand the fugitive elements within the story and depiction as a genealogical and ethical project. It is a retelling of history from the place of flight, but it is more remarkably the claiming of a history in the first place. And so, inasmuch as it has a different story to tell of its history, its lands, its language, bodies, and cultures, Wakanda and all of its inhabitants have access to what Jelani Cobb calls a redemptive counter-mythology.5 A testimony, if you will, that transforms concepts of “the dead” and boundaries between time and space, that overruns the limits of science and logic, and outdoes the most dramatic family drama possible. It’s like reading Genesis, the Gospels, or Revelation. Within this retelling and claiming work, fugitivity allows one to confront the lie of one’s own nonexistence, and to draw on and even evoke a new account of that existence. This confrontation is crucial because it not only calls attention to the fallacy of signification, it also deliberately uncovers the relational component of subject formation. It points directly to the reality that whiteness’s existence is only a result of having falsified the existence of—and then named—blackness. And inasmuch as that process of making seems difficult to undo, its undoing is what makes room for the un/making and then remaking of subjectivity and selfhood for black folks.
Blackness and black people in Wakanda live into the sacred work, generating different ontological self-understandings than the ones that would be signified upon them by the overlapping powers of capitalist white cisheteropatriarchy.
Blackness and black people in Wakanda live into the sacred work, generating different ontological self-understandings than the ones that would be signified upon them by the overlapping powers of capitalist white cisheteropatriarchy. Such a living out is ethical labor toward freedom. The freedom that seems to articulate itself in these folks’ lives is one of being, and I encountered it as I was working on my first book, Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). When I argued that black queers are moral subjects with moral agency, I was suggesting that we/they create the possibility of being virtuous or having virtue through a process called creative resistance. This resistance, while often manifested socially and politically, produces the ontological reality of freedom in individuals and communities. I was drawing on the legacy of black feminist and womanist praxis, along with queer discourse, to be able to see and interpret my observations and interviews with black queers who were themselves just trying to make a way. When black queers imagine new relational possibilities—through the practice of recognizing and resisting oppressive ones—there is a confrontation with present reality. Imaginative work uses the simultaneity embedded in queerness to doubly focus on fostering alterity to what is tangible and present as well as generating newness based on possibilities. And, moral imagination does not leave our realities, experiences, and motivations in some forgotten past; instead, it honestly and intentionally recognizes how those elements (can) contribute to the new worlds.
So, then, when I write about the survival, livability, and futures of blackness and queerness, I participate in the construction of worlds and social relations that are built on notions of subjectivity that we don’t currently have or with which we don’t quite operate. When I talk about the revolutionary quality of black love, I am making a statement about how the reality of black love stands in opposition to the moral discourse that we have used to describe black lives. And so, between the lack of a future, due to the expendability of labor, and the fungibility of black lives and bodies, it makes sense to think that black lives do not matter. The articulation of anything opposite to that is absolutely science fiction. Wakanda and Black Panther are not science fiction because they are comicbook stories; rather, they are sci-fi because they articulate a “substance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1).
Again, this kind of speculative fiction is ethical action. When situated against volumes of histories and fictional re-instantiations of histories that denigrate, consume, exploit, and eviscerate blackness, Black Panther looks like a black and black queer version of the “it is written, but I say” refrain (Matthew 5). One exciting feature of that declaration is the shift from what has been written to what is newly iterated. But the dopest part, I think, is the shift from “it” to “I”—the injection of subjectivity, moral subjectivity, and a capacity for change.
In my work, I talk about these shifts as black queer ethics, and I love that it has the audacity and rage to do this script-flipping kind of work. To make us recognize ourselves as sources of knowledge and then to challenge our use of normative frameworks, language, and categories within those descriptions of knowledge. This is what allows black queer ethics to be a mode of destabilizing the structures of domination that build upon anti-blackness, the suppression of sexuality, sexual self-knowledge, and self-love, as well as collective experiences and expressions of joy. In this way, black queer ethics is a process of decolonizing the imagination and imaginative process. Writer and activist Walidah Imarisha reminds us about this in Octavia’s Brood, where she writes: “once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless. . . . Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us.”6
The black queer ethics that makes freedom possible is about bending reality to create freedom and justice, but it is also about shattering what we know as reality, breaking apart epistemological framing that shackles us in neoliberal bondage. It is about snatching back what looks like the collective good right now, in order to make room for all that is not yet. To make room for that same substance of things hoped for. So, then, I will leave us here and with questions that black queer ethics poses for us: Whose ancestors will we be? Who are we writing into our future? What kind of souls, bodies, and lives are we making possible? And, to whom among the dead will our children speak?7
- Katie G. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics (Wipf and Stock, 1998), 2.
- Ladelle McWhorter, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy (Indiana University Press, 2009), 98.
- Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 13.
- Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Indiana University Press, 2013), 3.
- Jelani Cobb, “ ‘Black Panther’ and the Invention of ‘Africa,’ ” The New Yorker, February 18, 2018.
- Walidah Imarisha, introduction to Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, ed. Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown (AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 4, 5.
- This is an edited version of a panel talk I delivered at the third annual Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference, held at HDS on March 1, 2019.
Thelathia “Nikki” Young is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Religion at Bucknell University. Her first monograph, Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination, was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. Her second book, co-authored with Eric Barreto and Jake Myers, is In Tongues of Mortals and Angels: A De-Constructive Theology of God-Talk in Acts and Paul (Fortress Academic, 2018). She is working on a new manuscript, tentatively titled “We Plead the Blood of Freedom: A Transnational Ethics of Black Queer Liberative Practice.”