The way that we talk about racial justice matters. Our edited collection, Antiracism Inc.,1 examines how discourses originally created by freedom movements can be appropriated in order to neutralize the very outcomes that those struggles produced and envisioned. For example, many private corporations and public institutions have incorporated the slogan “Black lives matter” as a sign of general support for antiracism and diversity. But such incorporation—or “performative wokeness”—can also delegitimate the vital work involved in challenging the organization of a society that is dependent upon racism, settler colonialism, environmental degradation, and militarism.
Such incorporation of antiracist discourses, we argue, is a unique discursive or meaning-making technology that, actually, advances racism. This incorporative modality is not historically new or specific to neoliberalism; instead, it shifts in response to sustained organizing demands. Certainly, ongoing forms of organized abandonment and calculated cruelty persist in an age of neoliberal multiculturalism, which selectively categorizes people for inclusion within or exclusion from the dominant order. Opposition to the Movement for Black Lives, for example, has variously employed tactics of resistance2 (through the police suppression of protesters and incarceration of organizers), refusal (through continued funding for policing and military equipment, technology, and personnel), and renegotiation (through the “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter” counter-discourses).
Yet, against the philosophy of white liberalism—which underpins institutional discourses of “diversity,” “inclusion,” and, indeed, “antiracism”—the Black radical imagination and other revolutionary epistemologies continue to refuse selective assimilation into the burning house of racial capitalism. This radical imagination is becoming increasingly urgent, as people are becoming clearer on how official antiracisms are not at all antagonistic to domestic and global war.
To critically analyze “antiracism” means to question the ways that antiracist discourses can be neutralized through incorporation or reimagined through struggle. And this analysis has a special significance for conceptualizing “public reading” and literary studies as well.
What is the relationship between our experience and our understanding of the existential calamities that circumscribe the everyday and thus shape our reading practices, especially in periods of crisis? Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us that “crises are neither bad nor good, but crises do indicate inevitable change, the outcome of which is determined through struggle. Struggle, like crisis, is a politically neutral word: in this scenario, everyone struggles because they have no alternative.”3
Reading can bypass imagination, or become incorporated into producing meanings about our everyday that rationalize the status quo. This response to crisis reasserts the normalcy of catastrophe through narrow reading practices that rely on existing frameworks: the prison fix, police reform, and other corporate solutions. Such regimented reading opposes radical possibilities and imaginative practices that are inhospitable to the governing codes of being and doing. In what follows, we discuss the radical potential of reading in and through crisis.
What are “race-conscious reading practices,” to use Blake’s term? How can these practices end up neutralized in institutional settings?
Felice Blake (FB): Race-conscious reading practices4 challenge managerial forms of multiculturalism and colorblind epistemologies. Informed by social movements, these critical methodologies are interdisciplinary and promote public engagement.
From the New Negro to the Black Power movements and to contemporary mobilizations for abolition and against Indigenous dispossession, organized oppositions to racial injustice have always engaged the creative imagination. Understanding themselves as the cultural arm of revolutionary struggle, Black Arts Movement artists and Black feminist artists of the 1960s and 1970s like Hoyt Fuller, Addison Gayle, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde sought to produce works that responded to the culture, needs, and realities of Black life. They also developed new critical vocabularies to analyze these expressions and worked from the belief that these creative and critical efforts had important roles to play in transforming social systems.
In theory and praxis, race-conscious reading practices consider this complex relationship between conventions of writing and structures of oppression. In the process, they imagine new approaches to and engagements with texts and the public.
Literary studies, or what we understand as the work of English departments, has at different times resisted, refused, or renegotiated the interventions that social movements produced in higher education. Excluding nonwhite authors from the curriculum was the dominant practice through most of the 20th century. Even still, including formerly denied writers as well—as expressed commitments to diversity and multiculturalism on campus and in the curriculum—did not necessarily bring about the transformation of what counts for evidence, in terms of scholarly literary engagement and criticism in teaching, methodologies, and publication.
While Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison may now be required reading of the US literary canon, their crucial interventions—about, for example, the function of national literature in producing citizen-subjects and the vexed issue of race and writing under structures of oppression—are less likely to be engaged critically as oppositions to the traditional development of the discipline and its underlying premises. Narrow focus on the exceptionality of individual Black literary talents ignores the radical ways of knowing that these very texts enact.
Inclusion, rather than exclusion, can also function to reproduce the racial status quo. The pursuit of dominant recognition empowers the institution to grant, affirm, and legitimate minoritized life and culture.5 In this way, reading as a traditional form of education becomes possible insofar as it fails to make a difference to normative, disciplinary expectations.
Neoliberal multiculturalism works to sanitize discussions about racist state violence.
Alison Rose Reed (ARR): This neutralization of radical possibilities for reading is, again, not historically new, but gets a multicultural makeover in the neoliberal university. For example, the 18th-century rise of the novel positioned bourgeois women as ideal readers who could service their emotional appetites to expand their moral horizons. The link between reading and moral citizenship is evident in the nonprofit sector6 and the university.
In 2019, the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) Big Read program sponsored Old Dominion University to host an event series centered on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. This institutional partnership explicitly sought to foster community-wide dialogue about race and racism in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Yet, at various events that took place on campus—where the English department was presumed to be the authority on reading—the prevailing framework of neoliberal multiculturalism worked to sanitize discussions about racist state violence. It did so with feel-good dialogues about race, selectively acknowledging trauma in order to resolve it through empathic relation. The affective circulation and production of empathy in such settings replace the complex intersubjective work of bearing witness with spectacles of pain that ultimately maintain the institutional status quo.7
This points to a larger trend: the university’s official antiracisms find expression in the project of reading, particularly via the exploitation of vulnerable faculty whose perspectives can only be constructed as oppositional to the state in the representation of their own experiences. Across the university, reading becomes a site for the institutional containment and consumption of “difference” under a defanged articulation of social and racial justice.
This is “eating the other”8 2.0, where the peddling of such logics of empathy as a social good in English departments gets exported to university-wide initiatives and popular entertainment alike (e.g., Netflix’s Black Lives Matter collection). The self-fashioning of a liberal subjectivity through diverse consumption stands in for actually addressing, through collective struggle, proliferating forms of state violence eclipsed by the performative vocabulary of such subjectivity.
FB: Such approaches to reading respond to crises by neutralizing antiracism and radical reading practices. Reading, for example, became more popular than ever during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The pandemic exacerbated and exposed existing crises. For example, the so-called George Floyd protests of spring 2020 amped up the activity of or forced into formation many of the diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) committees, offices, and representatives we increasingly encounter in various aspects of professional life. The protests produced and demanded a reeducation about the conditions of violence and precarity that differentially structure everyday life and death across society. Reading lists and reading groups became vital to understanding the time and just what time it was.
We generally presume that reading engages our imagination. We often consider every act of reading as an attempt at interpretation or meaning making. Education, entertainment, and escapism are often cited9 as the motivations to read more during the crisis, but these also reflect presumptions about both what and how people around the world read. What about the bench warrants, death certificates, ballot measures, eviction notices, medical bills, utility invoices, hate mail, or love letters?
As the public read, professional scholars of literature scrambled to stop tenure clocks, witnessed the shriveling of an already imperiled job market, and lost employment. At the same time, colleges and universities drafted statements recognizing their complicity in reproducing and legitimating traditional forms of power and especially anti-Black racism. They wrote land acknowledgments and formed DEI committees and speaker series.
The institutional response to crisis sought to neutralize radical reading possibilities by imagining incorporated communities of readers whose reading would be limited to and maintained by upholding existing institutions. One could read the Morrill Act and publicly acknowledge that the university occupies the unceded land of Indigenous peoples, but only as long as the reading practice itself remains committed primarily to bettering or care for the institution.
Refusing alternatives to the dominant frameworks for knowledge attempted to sever everyday reading from professional interpretations and labor organizing from reimagining education. Aligning our reading practices with efforts to maintain the racial status quo left us with dwindling budgets, fewer colleagues, and many unread books.
ARR: The positing of traditional reading as a social good that adds value to the university—occluding its structural racism in the name of racial justice—extends to the prison, which is coextensive with the university’s liberal humanism. Indeed, prison education programs can reaffirm and reify the university’s trauma-tourism model of empathic universalism under the auspices of community engagement.10
Calls for liberal citizenship via celebrated forms of volunteerism are violent. They figure imprisoned students as a fungible audience for and captive beneficiaries of the university’s model of producing antiracist subjects divorced from praxis. Here, liberal discourses of service repackage collective struggles waged against the neoliberal university. Moreover, the disciplining of diversity is both literary and literal, as in the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor. Yet, creating a prison-to-school pipeline can function as another effort to quell dissent by appealing to aspirational ideals of educational liberation premised on selective inclusion. In language and action, this normalizes the relationship between schools and prisons.
This substitution of struggle with service is echoed in the project of traditional reading. For example, the genre of prison literature was in part championed by liberal actors to incorporate and quell the dissent of prison uprisings, such as the 1971 Attica Rebellion. Consider, for instance, the 1971 founding of the PEN America’s Prison Writing Program, which inaugurated prison writing as a new field of publication and study.11 The riot, it seems, is the sublimated reality that coheres the state’s language of rehabilitation.
This mirrors the canon wars, where a multicultural politics of inclusion and incorporation favored discussions of race absent commitments to addressing racism. Examples of incorporation, such as “diversity of thought,” the co-optation of free speech, and the bad-faith effort to bridge the so-called political divide are hospitable to state violence.
How can the radical imagination remain antagonistic to incorporation?
ARR: Racial power seeks to absorb the radical imagination as a function of state violence. Meanwhile, a renegade creativity—one that is riotous, rebellious, and rowdy—still matters to collective study and struggle.
I love what’s happening with the abolitionist organizing through Cops Off Campus, as just one example of organized action occurring across the University of California system and beyond. Their day of refusal on May 3, 2021, in solidarity with a number of universities across the country, is mobilizing for 100 percent police-free campuses.
The NYC Guerrilla Projection Collective collaborated with Grayson Earle to create a protest generator that was then projected on university buildings and public spaces to screen a virtual walkout on the May 3 day of refusal. Visualize a projector set up on a sidewalk, or thrown onto brutalist university architecture. Picture silhouetted figures in contrasting colors like bright neon green, mint, lavender, teal, and magenta, holding signs that read slogans like “Care Not Cops” and “Free Mumia.”
These are concrete examples of art backed by organized action. To imagine a livable social world that does not rehearse carceral logics requires deep forms of creative insurgency.
The radical imagination and sites of collective study remain antagonistic to dominant institutions and are directly connected to the organizing work that seeks their abolition. Whether in the university or in the prison, the work we do as educators and organizers should strive toward plotting the ultimate destruction of violent institutions. Socializing, studying, and organizing that remain disloyal to neoliberal forms of governance dream alternative ways of relating to work and each other.
FB: It’s so important to hold together the relationship between socializing, studying, and organizing as we think critically about our reading practices. “Reading” is neither neutral nor a promise of transformation.
After Louisville police officers killed Breonna Taylor and protests erupted globally against state violence, the city council voted to increase the police budget and to cut funding to public libraries.12 Even still, reading is not exclusive to the realm of academia or fully captured by power. Because thinking differently is what is violently opposed, our conception and practice of reading radically expose power and affirm life.
Reading does not only comprise the papers or digital transmissions purchased in the popular marketplace or offered on course syllabi. As my colleague and friend Sherene Seikaly states, reading routinizes time, spans necessity and luxury, and captures everyday struggles. If reading routinizes daily life, we seek to engage reading practices that disrupt the everyday coercive and seductive practices that legitimate our destruction.
It is important to stress that the experience of reading we describe here isn’t over at the scene of incorporation, for it does not aspire to existing frameworks for authenticity or recognition. Rather than a set of prescribed rules for regulating thought and behavior, radical reading practices are a vital dimension of (what Gilmore often describes as) “life in rehearsal” that shapes abolitionist imaginaries. Reading practices guided by a radical imagination unleash queer potentialities within the thought experiment of being. They rehearse intimate encounters that touch and allow us to be touched by others (not “the” Other).
Radical reading practices push us to take risks in the process of deepening interpersonal relations and the community spaces where these practices are constantly being made and remade through crisis and struggle.
This article was commissioned by Tita Chico and Carolyn Dever.
- Antiracism Inc.: Why the Way We Talk about Racial Justice Matters, edited by Felice Blake, Paula Ioanide, and Alison Reed (Punctum Books, 2019). ↩
- On resistance, refusal, and renegotiation, see George Lipsitz, “Law and Order: Civil Rights Laws and White Privilege,” in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Temple University Press, 2018). ↩
- Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Globalisation and US Prison Growth: From Military Keynesianism to Post-Keynesian Militarism,” Race and Class, vol. 40, no. 2/3 (1999): 178. ↩
- Felice Blake, “Why Black Lives Matter in the Humanities,” in Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines, edited by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Luke Charles Harris, Daniel Martinez HoSang, and George Lipsitz (University of California Press, 2019). ↩
- Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). ↩
- For more on the relationship between the nonprofit sector, organized abandonment, wealth consolidation, and moral citizenship, see The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, edited by INCITE! (South End Press, 2007). ↩
- Such spectacles of pain, or fetishized sites of suffering, place the onus on victims of state violence to provide proof of injury as insurance/assurance against continued refusal of recognition; they reinforce power relations through voyeurism masked as care. See Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997); Hershini Bhana Young, Haunting Capital: Memory, Text, and the Black Diasporic Body (University Press of New England, 2005). ↩
- bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (South End Press, 1992). ↩
- Sandy Kenyon, “Book Industry Seeing Boom in Sales amid COVID-19 Pandemic,” ABC7News, December 9, 2020; Alison Flood, “Research Finds Reading Books Has Surged in Lockdown,” Guardian, May 15, 2020; Stephanie Merry and Steven Johnson, “What the Country Is Reading during the Pandemic,” Washington Post, September 2, 2020. ↩
- Meghan G. McDowell and Alison Reed, “‘Can a Poem Stop a Jail from Being Built?’ On Fugitive Counter-Ethics as Prison Pedagogy,” in Prison Pedagogies: Learning and Teaching with Imprisoned Writers, edited by Joe Lockard and Sherry Rankins-Robertson (Syracuse University Press, 2018). ↩
- Anoop Mirpuri, “A Correction-Extraction Complex: Prison, Literature, and Abolition as an Interpretive Practice,” Cultural Critique, no. 104 (2019). ↩
- Amina Elahi, “Louisville Budget Maintaining Police Funding Passes with Broad Support,” 89.3 WFPL News, June 25, 2020. ↩