In 1967, the Black American singer Nina Simone performed “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” one of her many protest songs that were popularized during the civil rights movement. At the core of this song’s lyrics is a bird soaring through the sky, an image which functions as part of an allegory for achieving freedom. The song’s power emerges from its use of lyrical transformation to manifest liberation. That is, in singing the song, Simone herself seems to achieve freedom: while she begins by singing “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,” she ends by proclaiming, “Yes I know, oh, I know how it feels to be free.” For Simone, freedom is not an impossible dream; instead, it is a sensorial experience that is possible to achieve in one’s lifetime. And so, while anti-Blackness might subjugate Black people in ideological, mental, or physical ways, Black people complicate that abjection through creative and cultural production, like that of Simone’s freedom-seeking bird.
In fact, the tonal shift in Simone’s ballad—from dreaming freedom to living freedom—echoes an ideal at the very core of the Black struggle: expressing one’s desire through imagination as well as action. In fact, Nina Simone’s music (in addition to art by so many other Black creative voices during the civil rights movement) teaches us, effectively, how Black studies offers tools for imagining freedom.1 Creative works that embody individual desires for freedom, as Simone reveals, can also offer models for how to achieve liberation.
In a moment when people are fighting for Black lives by challenging police violence, three Black women theorists carry on the fight in a different, but necessary, fashion: by interrogating what it means to be unfree and not quite human. Science, as Zakiyyah Iman Jackson shows in Becoming Human, has long treated Black people as not quite human. Prisons, as Nicole Fleetwood shows in Marking Time, similarly deny their Black prisoners not just their freedom, but also their humanity. Even definitions of disability and madness, as Alyce Pickens reveals in Black Madness :: Mad Blackness, are twisted by the denial of humanity to Black patients.
These texts work in conversation because they show how the fields of science, medicine, and art determine who gets to be (un)free. Indeed, where Becoming Human, Black Madness, and Marking Time converge and overlap is in their critique of the Enlightenment. It is through the thinking of the Enlightenment that science, the asylum, and prisons unveil their violent foundations. These institutions deny people’s intellects and enclose them into tight spaces, while creating binaries between reason/madness, free/unfree, and human/nonhuman. The histories of these institutions cannot be separated from how Black people in the United States were contained and rendered nonhuman.
Yet this trope of dispossession and pain is not the only focus of these texts. They also reveal the radical and hopeful potential produced by Black literary and artistic traditions, such as that of Nina Simone. In examining these traditions, the three texts display the Black art and texts that contradict white patriarchal structures.
When put in conversation, these books offer possibilities for troubling different notions of freedom. It is not enough to recognize the arbitrary and systematic abuses that are done to the enslaved, imprisoned, or black(ened) subject. It is also important to show how Black theory makes a radical case for abolishing debt, violence, and incarceration. Together, these three texts provide space to engage in a praxis of liberation, scholarly arias that set the stage for Black life to flourish in America.
The histories of science, the asylum, and prisons cannot be separated from how Black people in the United States were contained and rendered nonhuman.
Black theory and Black studies as articulated by these three scholars force us to face the social inequities that taunt us. Within Western philosophy, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson shows in Becoming Human, Black people historically have been “animalized.” In examining these limitations of Western philosophy, Becoming Human shows that the fundamental idea of “humanity” that has gained widespread credence in the West is flawed.
Becoming Human joins an intellectual tradition that is disrupting how Black people are perceived in the West, as highlighted by the specific embodied experience which frames Black people as not quite human. This tradition includes work by theorists such as Saidiya V. Hartman and Sylvia Wynter, as well as Aimé Césaire’s notion of “thingification.”2
Renowned German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel relegated Black people to nonhuman states. In so doing, Jackson reveals, these philosophers excluded Black people from the burgeoning “universal humanity” that emerged in continental philosophy. These thinkers portrayed Black people sometimes as animals and other times as machines, which, Jackson explains, suggests that stereotypes about Blackness are not fixed.
Or, as Jackson would say, Blackness is subjected to plasticity. In return, Jackson makes an intervention by firmly placing Black literary and visual culture into philosophy. For example, Jackson argues that a formerly enslaved person in Toni Morrison’s Beloved disturbs the seemingly fixed racial hierarchies, mostly because his character development is rooted in his claiming sovereignty immediately after the American Civil War.
Becoming Human shows us how trauma to the Black body is haunting. That is to say, “the black body,” Jackson explains, “is an essential index for the calculation of degree of humanity and the measure of human progress.”
The clearest illumination of the intersection of race and gender can be found in Jackson’s chapter “Organs of War,” which follows these themes through Wangechi Mutu’s Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors and Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. Here, we are confronted with how anti-Blackness produces racial health disparities and, subsequently, the premature death of Black people; the chapter gives special attention to Black women. As Black people in the United States continue to die at disproportionate rates from giving birth, we are reminded of how racism in medicine deprives Black people of care.
Pickens’s Black Madness :: Mad Blackness invites the reader to think about race and disability in Black American literature through the works of Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tananarive Due. These Black authors have often centered protagonists whose physical features do not fit the archetype of the traditional superhero; rather than super strength, their characters might have disabilities such as epilepsy. Pickens uses Butler’s Fledgling as an example to highlight how Shori, the Black disabled person who remains the principal character, provides the space for Black madness to be celebratory—as opposed to being cloaked in the invisibility of disability that is pervasive in society.
“If remaining human is possible or preferable, what exactly does it mean to be one?” asks Pickens. “How might we read and interpret if we cannot assume the validity of the human?” While some Black speculative-fiction writers have made space for this humanity to be a possibility, that is not the case in everyday society. Pickens considers madness critically; to open up space for her readers, she uses compositional experimentation by leaving her text without a conclusion.
The dangerously curtailed category of the human, Pickens explains, posed a set of problems for Black madness. Since Black people were not included in Enlightenment philosophers’ categorization of “the human,” they were not included in the Enlightenment’s valorization of reason. As such, a Black person—deemed to be not human or without reason—could be disproportionately subjected to slavery, colonialism, and the carceral state.
The incarcerated take aesthetic risks; they experiment; they are intellectuals who make art through penal space, matter, and time.
The undue limiting of empathy and humanity when it comes to madness and disability can be seen likewise in the prison system. The art historian and curator Nicole Fleetwood’s Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration is a timely text that looks at the creative capacity within and peripheral to the prison system. It sheds light on the place of imaginative possibility for imprisoned people and their networks, especially as it relates to art making, photography, and exhibition work.
Throughout Marking Time, Fleetwood mines prison visual culture: the mercurial objects that are made in periods of confinement, the collages that are deployed through therapy. She argues that prison art is a practice of resistance, which produces knowledge worlds that both exist in the zone bounded by prison walls and extend into the larger contemporary art world. What Fleetwood shows is that prison art is not only for prisoners, but that it has intrinsic value that speaks to people both inside and outside the prison system.
Ultimately, the incarcerated take aesthetic risks; they experiment; they are intellectuals who make art through penal space, matter, and time. Fleetwood weaves through a rich collection of works and theoretical contributions with “an abolitionist vision to end human caging and the conditions that produce prisons.” She shows how prison art disrupts the aesthetic rubrics and parameters with which people are familiar, and the assumptions about institutional and aesthetic constraints that occur in highly surveilled spaces.
What we find is a visual landscape, including illustrations, collage, and photographs of incarcerated people taken when their families have visited, or what Fleetwood refers to as “vernacular photography.” These images, along with countless oral testimonies from incarcerated artists, shed light on prison’s impact on modern life, more specifically on the people who want to undo the prison through visual culture. In some cases, as Fleetwood shows, prisoners of different racial backgrounds develop friendships through art; in other cases, an art community is developed alongside people living outside the prison walls. In this way, prison art, like Black studies, is not a tangential field within the creative world, but part of the canon.
These three texts are a testament to Black women theorists’ examination of Black imagination. They invite us to enter into what Pickens calls a “politics of curiosity,” one that moves beyond dominant forms of mythmaking or the living nightmares of the carceral state, and to see the constellation of Black life, the impulse to rectify freedom and break the confines of mass incarceration.
Today, the Black Lives Matter movement has ushered in new narratives that expose the brutalities of police and state violence, and that challenge racial prejudice. Like many Black Americans, I oscillate between feelings of collective grief and rage when I bear witness to Black death. And like fellow Black American scholars, I try to excavate the essence of our brilliance by reading the works of Octavia Butler, supporting (formerly) incarcerated kin by acknowledging their humanity, and exercising the politics of liberation through active community building.
Nina Simone’s anthem resonated with many Black Americans. They felt the omnipotent pressures of being shackled and silenced by society, especially as racism weighed deeply on the Black children and grandchildren of former slaves who were still fighting to be free.
Although born of a different era and a different method, and unlike the Enlightenment, which developed such a narrow definition of the human, Black studies provides an archival and theoretical footprint that creates the possibility for radical thinking and change, mostly because it centers the intellectual, literary, and artistic production of Black people. But even more so, it allows us to destabilize the terms that condition us to feel unfree.
This essay is the third in a series on citizenship, part of the University of Michigan’s Democracy and Debate Theme Semester for fall 2020.
This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabriel.