Public Thinker: Katherine McKittrick on Black Methodologies and Other Ways of Being

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
“How might scientific storytelling, or stories of science, shape the struggle for liberation?”

I first came to Katherine McKittrick’s work through the paper “Mathematics Black Life.”1 As a Black theoretical physicist—one searching to gain an understanding of the links between the science I love so much and the white supremacy I can’t stand, searching for how to make a future out of their collision in me—I found McKittrick’s article to be eye-opening. I was once a child who loved to count simply for the sake of counting, and here was an article explaining the ways this simple act of counting had been invoked to engage in outrageous acts of dehumanizing anti-Blackness.

In her new book, Dear Science and Other Stories, McKittrick takes up the mathematics of Black life in a stunningly prismatic form, pulling from the intellectual threads in her first book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and Cartographies of Struggle (2006), to engage the larger question of how knowledge and liberation can coproduce and coexist. All of McKittrick’s work transgresses disciplinary traditions, pulling from Black studies, feminist studies, geography, media studies, philosophy of science, and more. This makes the work wonderfully rich, with each sentence birthing what feels like whole universes of possibilities.

I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Dear Science and then discuss it with McKittrick by email. What follows is an edited version of our exchange, which took place over the course of a month in fall 2020.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (CPW): I read Dear Science as a love note to Black studies. The book made me feel really proud to be working in this liberatory tradition.

I loved it when you said, “Black method is not … continuously and absolutely undisciplined (invariably without precision, invariably undone). Black method is precise, detailed, coded, long, and forever.”

I see you engaging in a delicate rhetorical act here, both articulating “Black method” and acknowledging its breadth. Does something count as Black thought because a Black person is having the thought? Or is there more to it?


Katherine McKittrick (KM): I would shy away from pairing Black thought with Black personhood. In the book I try to focus less on Black-thought-as-authentically-Black and more on how a range of anticolonial thinkers have provided a series of methodologies and strategies for thinking about liberation. In the book I deliberately center liberation and collaboration.

But I also recognize and honor all these long-standing, rigorous, and studied ways of knowing that emerge from a community of Black creatives—I think this word is out of fashion but it is all I have—and scholars and intellectuals and organizers. This also makes room for thinking beyond identity-self (an identity-self that is authenticated by, say, race or other corporeal features) as the ultimate enunciation of what liberation is.

Thinking beyond identity-self moves us toward other, more interesting questions, which attend to how freedom is imagined and enacted through our extrahuman worlds. For me this is also about what songs, environment, ecology, water, poems, and theoretical leaps tell us about exploding coloniality and race thinking.

So, my preoccupation with geography, the where of Blackness, holds. I can’t get away from it! But yes—although I would describe Dear Science as a love note, complete with heartbreak and failed attachments!



CPW: You specifically say that the book is not about Black science but, rather, about articulating “how we come to know black life through asymmetrically connected knowledge systems.” Even so, you seem to be gesturing toward Black studies as Black scientific thought.

As a Black scientist and critical theorist, I was intrigued and challenged by these ideas: Black life in and through science, science as knowledge system, Blackness as knowledge system. What conclusions did you come to, if any, about the power relations between these framings?


KM: What I came to realize—or at least what I want to convey (but not conclusively)—is that Black methodologies are knowledge systems and ways of being. And also that these epistemological embodied networks are, following Sylvia Wynter, relational. In this way, the dynamism between our biological selves (our flesh, our blood, our hearts, our muscles and neurons) and the stories we tell about ourselves (about our identities and our sense of place) becomes central to how we conceptualize freedom.

I also learned that one way to think through power relations is to recognize differential ways of being, within the context of white supremacy. But, at the same time, to position all kinds of knowledges—so here we are thinking interhumanly and interecologically and intergeographically—as collaborative. Not just connected, but collaborative and cooperative.

So, what happens if scientific knowledge systems are both enjoined with and collaborate with Black knowledge systems? How might we imagine Black scientific knowledge not merely as additive (for example, here is the Black scientist; they are adding to the existing scientific story; so now we have achieved equity in science)? How might we imagine Black scientific knowledge, instead, as invested in an anticolonial project: a knowledge system that uses the methods of science to imagine new and radical and more just ways of relating to each other?

What I learned a lot about was the potentiality of generous collaboration and really taking collaboration seriously—like really embracing intellectual camaraderie. I really love Avery Gordon’s work on radical friendships; I apply her formulation not just to interhuman thinking, but also across different discursive and creative and ecological nodes. This allows for camaraderie, for example with song, and also recognizes the song as reaching out for friendship.

Friendships are hard and painful, too. So there is room there for a kind of embattled cooperation.

CPW: What stories are we telling when we are in these conversations about ownership over Black method and Black thought?


KM: To own Black thought and Black methodology closes down curiosity. It belies what Black methodologies are tasked to do: which is to work, read, think, create across different sites and knowledges and histories, in order to undo plantocratic and colonial logics that thrive on owning, possessing, having, excluding, extracting.

We can think about this beyond the broad strokes of thought and method and ask ourselves about how this kind of ownership logic emerges around concepts, ideas, citations. Sometimes there is an unpleasant battle over who owns a particular concept. This battle is bound up in a refusal to appreciate the intellectual-creative work underpinning the concept itself. The skirmish over possession takes over and obscures what is really at stake.

Many years ago, I was at a dissertation workshop. Some Black graduate students were talking about slave narratives, and how some senior scholars claimed they “owned” certain slave archives.

I remember feeling really nauseous and confused about how this research was being described through the practice of ownership—the re-proprietorship, actually—of Black enslaved stories in this way. I cannot get this out of my head. I guess the senior scholars were saying, “That’s my slave, I found her first,” with a real enthusiasm. I was very rattled.

This was a cautionary tale for me! What does it mean to own ideas, extract ideas, exclude ideas?

CPW: Tell me the story behind this book. The introduction makes me think that it was a journey, that you landed somewhere different from where you began. What were you planning to do when you began the project?


KM: The book began as a methodological and narrative experiment. When I was writing Demonic Grounds and making connections between the fields of Black studies and human geography, I was very excited and challenged by the process of thinking across disciplines and knowledges and histories. I wanted to push myself to continue that work in Dear Science.


CPW: People who are familiar with your work probably understand you as a key thinker around Black spaces and geography. I was definitely reading with an interest in seeing how geography led you to writing stories and letters to science.


KM: Geography grounds Black ways of being in place. There was this intellectual energy across disciplines that emerged in Demonic Grounds. I wanted to keep up with that (and I am still wading through it).

With the new book, I initially wanted to experiment with how science—the hard sciences, math, computing—emerge in Black studies. The objective was simple: to build on what I learned from Demonic Grounds, and fold in physics, math, astronomy, computing.

That is where I began. I started making columns and lists: M. NourbeSe Philip’s geometries, Sylvia Wynter’s physics and neurobiology and science of the word, Dionne Brand’s algebra and calculus, Toni Morrison’s aerodynamics, June Jordan’s phosphorescence. I wanted to—I still want to—find a way to honor the radical interdisciplinarity that punctuates Black worlds.

To do this honor, I turned to science and science studies. But I was often dragged down by scientific racism, as well as by my limited knowledge of scientific research. And I worried about presenting the science as purely metaphoric. There were moments when I was—when I am—crushed by what I did not and what I cannot know.

So, I turned to scientia—knowledge, knowledge making—as well as methodology. I made this change in hopes of holding science close, while also recognizing the limits of where I know from.


When Black Humanity Is Denied

By Edna Bonhomme

CPW: The title of the book, and the structuring of the text into stories, seems to be reflecting on Sylvia Wynter’s idea of the human as homo narrans: that we are not just a biological species, but also a cultural, storytelling species. Was your text an experiment with this simultaneously scientific and cultural idea?


KM: Yes, you are right on! And part of this framing—storytelling—is meant to signal how stories have the capacity to move us. This, I think, is almost a direct quote from Dina Georgis!

Since encountering Wynter’s work on the science of the word and the conjunction of bios and mythoi, I’ve thought about how to honor the story—and, specifically, Black storytelling—as texts that are deeply connected to, and collaborating with, our biological embodied selves. How do we show that the story and storytelling are fundamentally human (and therefore biological) practices that physiologically affect us?

In Wynter’s work, she does this amazingly smart theoretical and intellectual leap, where she refuses to situate the human within the context of biocentricity. Biocentricity is the idea that we began life on this planet as a kind of blank and unformed biologic entity and then, as time moved forward, we acquired—we grew, we evolved toward—more sophisticated biological features, like language. This growth, too, is measured through race thinking, with “Caucasian” signifying supremacy. So, Wynter refuses this. She will not say, “humans moved toward storytelling,” or “… and then the humans told the story.” She will never fall into that trap: the one where the story, the act of languaging our existence, comes after humanity has biologically matured. The problematic and punishingly whitened and linear conundrum of scientific racism—apes-to-Aryans-to-cyborgs-to-robots—explodes.

Instead, she insists that we are, and always have been, a simultaneously bios-and-mythoi species. I worked with Wynter’s ideas and wanted to commit, as best as I could, to theorizing storytelling as tied to—as coauthored with—Black physiologies.

CPW: Is science storytelling? What is the relationship between what you call science and what we might refer to as professional science—the communities and practices that make up “the scientific community”?


KM: Yes. Though this is a question I must ask you! I would say, yes, science is storytelling and [those in] the scientific community are storytellers. But how would you work through this? If scientists are also telling stories, what stories do they tell? How might scientific storytelling, or stories of science, shape the struggle for liberation?


CPW: Thinking about my answer to these questions, I thought about what you say above, “So, what happens if scientific knowledge systems are both enjoined with and collaborate with Black knowledge systems?”

In my forthcoming book, The Disordered Cosmos, I start to make the case that something can happen to us urban Black North Americans, emotionally, if we have access to a dark night sky and the ability to interpret it in technical terms. I truly believe this. I also know the laws of physics are universal.

So, the question for me then becomes: Is this really a matter of determining why we know these things? Is this in part about what we do with the sublime?


KM: Yes! I think your book will show how different kinds of knowledge, when brought together, provide new insights about how we understand our diverse interhuman and interecological and intercelestial worlds. Pairing the technologies of the dark night sky with a Black sense of place does something to both race and the atmosphere. It has to!

I imagine, too, that the affective registers that emerge from this pairing are complicated. Not just oscillating between knowing and unknowing at the level of the human. There is also the question of working out how the technology of the night sky is, or can be, part of a liberatory schema that interrupts anthropocentric worldviews.

This is what possibility feels like to me. It does not rest on a top-down descriptive statement, such as “these are the technological terms of the night sky.” Instead, it asks how this sharing of knowledge provides new or alternative interpretive worlds. The “why” (which so often demands a “because I know” answer) collapses.

And yes, for sure, the connectedness of knowledge systems and ways of knowing are about what we do with the sublime. If we stretch Paul Gilroy’s work on the sublime beyond itself, we can draw attention to how a Black sense of place and a dark night sky, together, illustrate the ways Black thought refuses the strictures of Eurocentric science. A science that would otherwise position the Black-studies scientist outside—or as totally victimized by—its logics.

CPW: Does Dear Science imply that I should think of my work in particle physics as Black thought? Is Dear Science Black science? (That phrase always makes me think of “Black magic” and conjuring …)


KM: Yes! Your work perfectly exemplifies the possibility of radical interdisciplinarity, while also unsettling the ostensibly normative home of Black studies, which is often thought to be situated in the humanities, the social sciences, education, the arts. To suture particle physics to Black liberation is one of the ways to upend typical knowledge systems, which seek to discipline, through enacting disciplinarity, the unruly cross-disciplinary activities of Black and anticolonial scholars.

There is something very hopeful about your research, because it can provide a grammar for extending and expanding what Black thought is (and where it is). Of course, you know the field more intimately than I do, and I know I am drifting into a problem area (what you do is perfect, please let me have some of that knowledge, I love radical scientists!). But I do wonder how your study of particles, matter, density, gravity, or neutrons can allow us to think about collaboration, methodology, and Black livingness in new ways.

At the same time, part of the work of Black and anticolonial studies is bound up in the labor of sharing how we live in this world. So, with all of this—with the density and gravity and so on—there is the necessary work of teaching, mentorship, friendship.

This isn’t a request to disclose personal stories. Rather, it’s a signal that what you do, in the world of particle physics, also involves living through a punitive academic system. And that requires finding within it, and sometimes sharing (through a story or a theory or a conversation or a silence) methodologies and techniques that are invested in making this world bearable. I think Black particle physics can move us.

CPW: I’m very interested by curiosity as a framework, partly because, as you know, I think a key part of Black lifework is protecting Black children’s curiosity, as well as the natural tendency in children to create and improvise. But I am also afraid of curiosity. Because when curiosity happens without an ethical frame, we end up with scientists creating technologies without thinking about who will use them and how.

When we talk about rigor, are we talking ethics? Does rigor mean something beyond the market?


KM: When we talk about, and experience, creation and improvisation and curiosity, it is important to signal how these acts are laden with learning and studying and watching and listening and hearing and imagining (for children, too).

Musical improvisation, for example, takes practice. It is hard work! It requires studying these beautiful and monumental musical structures, it requires memory work, it requires ceaseless scale repetition. There is a rigor there, and a carefulness; the musician is attentive to existing knowledge systems, and they take that attentiveness and turn it into something totally new, and they do this with amazing skill and creative discipline. The layers of virtuosity are mind-boggling to me.

And yes, this can be, and is, done outside market time. Black creative work regularly undermines the linear temporalities of capitalism. Even as we are all caught up in this system, there is something about Black creative work that, purposefully or not, cannot be contained by brutal accumulative logics.

So, I wonder whether the scientists you are referring to—and we see this outside the sciences, too—are not curious? They obviously study, but are they partaking in careless imagining? Is this a delinking … where rigor stands alone, without curiosity?

Maybe this is about reading practices and learning. What is embedded in learning (the desire to know) that will allow it to become a site of openness and generosity (including redistribution of resources), and what is embedded in learning (the desire to know) that allows it to refuse humanity (including accumulation by dispossession)? How, in our teaching (inside and outside the classroom) do we sustain the former?


Black Speculation, Black Freedom

By Petal Samuel

CPW: I was simultaneously fascinated and heartbroken by your story of wanting to code, so as to tell an algorithmic story, yet finding yourself unable to do so. I found myself wanting to know more about what you tried, why you think you failed.


KM: I wanted to create, on my own, an endless algorithm; I wanted to input poetics and have them just stream, infinitely, across a screen. That was my plan. And I wanted to share these streaming poetics at my presentations and talks, alongside my usual endless looping images and text.

When I began researching how to do this, I became very frustrated. I could not do it. I did not have the background in computer science. I read and read and read and I still could not comprehend even the most basic codes. I found things like this: Fill column matrix. For every column, start // from every last row and fill every entry as // blockage after a 0 is found. for (int j=0; j<n; j++) { // flag which will be zero once we get a ‘0’ // and it will be 1 otherwise bool is Endless. I found myself sitting at my desk, really unravelling.

As I explain in the book, my partner, Zilli, is a musician and a coder, and he helped me work through it. But I remember sitting there, just sad and embarrassed. Because I had to face how insolent I was for thinking I could just “make an algorithm” and disregard the difficult work computer scientists do. I had to come to terms with the fact that my understanding of algorithms was largely descriptive and that most of what I knew was largely negative (algorithms underpin racial profiling) and that I was understudied.

That story, though, reveals a deeper anxiety—it is riddled with this quiet distress around my feeling that I must produce something, anything, that will bring Davonte Flennoy back. It is an anxiety that reveals the stakes of living with him, with the loss of him, as a form of ethical distancing.


Defund the Police and Refund the Communities

By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

CPW: I’m thinking about a question I have for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” discourse: “What is your STEM inclusion plan for Tamir Rice?”

The same applies for Davonte Flennoy. If I understand the story correctly, Davonte Flennoy was a young Black Chicagoan who was targeted first by an “anti-violence” algorithm that identified him as high risk for a violent death, who then at the age of 20 died after he was shot in the head, chest, and arm.

I’m wondering whether your own ideas suggest a solution to your algorithmic problem: that you needed a collaborator who had the computer-science background? Maybe the answer is always that liberation requires collaboration. What about algorithms of liberation?


KM: I find it hard to live with the list that Davonte Flennoy inhabits. I think about this, and I think about what we can do—I mean I did not know him, I do not know him—and I fall apart. Because in some fucked-up way, the algorithm that foresaw his death and did not prevent his death was put forth as a benevolent technology. But, in fact, that technology had no prior conception of, no technological design that could bear, his livingness. The benevolent technology assumed his death. Waking up to this kind of world is agony. Agony.

Inclusion is not going to save us—I think we can agree on that. But we can create, and we have created, alternative conditions through which to relate to each other, in spaces that assume we should be disaggregated according to race and disciplinary expertise.

I believe, yes, collaboration is one way to rethink technologies that harm vulnerable communities. Collaboration is one form of liberation. I want to make connections with and between radical mathematicians and computer scientists and nurses and astronomers and organizers and novelists and literary critics and social theorists and wildlife biologists and physicists. I want to talk with these people from ostensibly different intellectual worlds, talk about what it means to center Black livingness and Black life rather than preventable death.

I don’t know if forging these connections and building conversations will produce a straightforward algorithm of liberation. But maybe they will offer convoluted and unthought-of ways to keep fighting together.

CPW: The story you tell about Black studies is completely enthralling: “Liberation is an already existing and unfinished and unmet possibility”! My inner grouch worried that this overly valorized Black studies as a field, particularly given the toxic power relations the academy tends to produce. How did you think about this part of the story as you wrote and edited?


KM: I am trying to get at everything I have learned from so many scholars and creatives and writers. It is a request to conceptualize liberation capaciously, without any kind of clear directive.

And you are right, that statement is potentially everything and everywhere, and this potentiality opens it up to both emptiness and extraction. It is a sentence of vulnerability!

Nonetheless, I am working with the insights of Ruth Wilson Gilmore—who talks about abolition as a presence—and am seeking to situate the book, and Black methodologies, as something that is not new. Instead, I want to ground both in already-existing practices of freedom-making/method-making, which are also provisional and flexible.

I am also working with the research and writing of Paul Gilroy, who talks about imagining liberation as ongoing but never resolved. With this, we are tasked to learn and teach about liberation together. I love lessons.

And maybe these are clues that can help us to think the academy differently. Sylvia Wynter told me that the academy is one place where new ideas are invented and where knowledge systems fall. While the academy can be a location of terrible unkindness, it is also a site of invention and possibility. So, when Dionne Brand writes, “One has no friends in academia. One has colleagues. One has assassins,” I read this not as a descriptive statement. (It is from a work of fiction, of course, but sometimes this quotation circulates as an enclosed nonfiction truth.) Instead, I read the quote as a moment that obscures, but does not totally erase, other ways of living in this world. This is especially the case if we are fighting against white supremacy, especially if we are honoring existing articulations of anticolonialism, especially if we are reading about and inventing and sharing freedoms that are not prescriptive but protractive.


Reading as Inoculation

By Rebecca Zorach

CPW: I’m thinking with that Dionne Brand quote, along with the fact that we never fully exist outside of that brutal academic system that teaches us and incentivizes us to be enemies with our colleagues. I’m almost embarrassed to ask this question, but I’m constantly worrying about the toxicity between folks in academia who are doing what we call liberation work. Do you have a philosophy that helps you navigate and reduce that toxicity?


KM: We all worry. It is rough. I listen to a lot of music. I listen to all kinds of music, anything. I love it. I cherish my academic and nonacademic friends, deeply, as well as Zilli, Ellison. I write a lot. I write every day. I read. These academic and nonacademic friends and family have enabled that writing, reading, listening—it is not just me!

There are other ways to be in the academy. I have seen it, I still see it: this generous love for ideas, the careful and patient disagreements, the collaborations, the bursts of unknowing and learning, the deep and fantastic knowledge of Black archives, songs, poems, writers. It is imperfect and terrible, but there is something meaningful there, too.

Our job is to seek out and share these other ways of being. How beautiful to see this intense love of ideas and this admiration.


CPW: Part of what is so incredibly rich about Dear Science is how deeply in dialogue it is with other Black thinkers. What advice would you have for someone who is an outsider to the works? To someone, for example, who has maybe never read Sylvia Wynter, or found her hard to read because they’re used to reading papers on condensed-matter physics?


KM: I hope this book generates wonder. I hope it signals a love of reading and theorizing, while also offering the invitation to live with what we cannot know.

This is where I ask you if we can read our work together. And also read and listen to other stories, too. And then share ideas and tell our students and friends what we learned.


CPW: Who is on your dream list of collaborators?


KM: Can I say “King of Sorrow” by Sade? I think that song is my dream collaborator.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platticon

  1. Katherine McKittrick, “Mathematics Black Life,” The Black Scholar, vol. 44, no. 2 (2014).