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Thank you for Dear Science and Other Stories (DS), which provides the opportunity to think about the nexus of Black aesthetics, science, and politics; and for the chance to take notes in the lined pages that end the book itself. The space urges us to enter the conversation with you, preserving your insights for safekeeping, to think about Black form and format. Below I offer a brief comment/thank you drawn from the notes at the back of my book.
Don’t Make Me Over — the great Dionne Warwick song — is one of many you prescribe that we listen to in DS (McKittrick, 2021: 122). Much like the song, you demand that Black study be allowed to be: disciplined in ways that exceed and negate the Disciplines. The book replicates the song’s culminating demand: accept me for the things that I do-ooh-ooh, except that it commands apprehension and respect rather than acceptance; you also makes explicit the song’s implication that dissolution is immanent (in this case with those who fail to grasp the radical interdisciplinarity and relationality in Black study and life). In some ways DS is a breakup book.
So thank you for emphasizing the need to abandon intellectual crutches (excess description, gratuitous metaphor, objectivity) and lending clarity to questions about when it is time to call our intellectual relationships. When does the labor such relationships require become too excessive? How do we recognize the Rubicon? DS both advocates abandonment and elucidates relationality: relationships between seemingly disparate knowledge practices and the role of that knowledge production in the pursuit of Black living. As a Black feminist interdisciplinary historian who appreciates descriptive footnotes probably more than she should, I’m interested in and thankful for the relationship you delineate between Black work and feminism and also between citation and possibility.
You tell us that although you “brokenheartedly abandoned feminism many years ago,” you “did not abandon black feminist thought” (McKittrick, 2021: 29). As I understand it, you were driven to let go by feminism’s production of a political interior, or (at the risk of problematically employing metaphor which you caution us against), it’s the production of an intellectual domestic sphere. This domestic sphere is, as you put it, dreadful awful; its citational practice is both claustrophobic and pilfering and this theft represents not only a mode of justifying domination but also a technology of domination itself. On the final lines of page 22 you ask: “When do we refuse to engage those feminist scholars who despise those who clean their homes and tend their gardens and care for their children? When do we refuse to cite or read or talk about dreadful awful brutal feminism? How do we cite the feminists who call other feminists ‘terrorists’? Where and when do we stop citing the nonwhite, including black, patriarchal scholars who, heckle, cut down, plagiarize, kick about, ignore, talk over, interrupt, demote, demean black women?” (McKittrick, 2021: 22).
Ostensibly these questions are in a footnote but because the entire chapter is a footnote, this passage is either a footnote of a footnote or the main text; but I suppose the point is that it is all the main text, that we are instructed to see citation differently, not as hierarchical taxonomy but as a form of scattering on the page that makes relation. When I first read that particular passage, I wrote in the note pages WWL! HVC (which translates to the title of Hazel Carby’s famous essay “White Woman Listen!”)—the epigraph of that essay is a quote from Gayl Jones’s Corregidora. It reads:
I’m leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too…They burned all the documents…We got to burn out what they put in our minds, like you burn out a wound. Except we got to keep what we need to bear witness. The scar that’s left to bear witness. (Jones, 1975: 14, 72; quoted in Carby, 1999: 67)
The scar is borne from a genealogy of treason work which includes traditions of Black feminist arson (on treason work I’m borrowing again from Carby, and on arson from Amara Lawson-Chavanu and Angela Davis); the scar inscribes a sort of Black intellectual sharing, a collective practice of both rejecting and keeping. Jones here theorizes some of the ways that you urge us toward refusing epistemological violence and corporeal objectification.
You and Jones gesture to the role of embodied and spatial knowledge in converging practices of illumination, interiority, and opacity. The scar exemplifies referencing rather than exhibiting need, liberatory forms of witnessing instead of surveilling, quantifying, or observing: all urgencies of Black study so gracefully elaborated in Dear Science. Citing, you say, is not easy, referencing is hard. In this passage the scar is, much like, Dear Science, itself, an intervention in Black epistemological form, and here I am indebted to Claudrena Harold for her insights on form and black studies. Part of the reason the scar resonated with me is because I have read the in-progress work of K. Avvirin Gray and some of my thinking about witnessing as contrasted with watching comes from the in-progress work of Antwann Simpkins. The scar emphasizes the how of creating ideas and evidence rather than the who or the how much. As I read DS and think about your work and Carby’s and Jones’s and Davis’s and Lawson-Chavanu’s and Harold’s and Gray’s and Simpkins’s I hear in my mind two presentations that you gave at UCLA, both times encouraging us to understand art as theory and I am grateful for how DS allows us to think about literature as theory as evidence of things not otherwise seen and not otherwise possible (or perhaps possible only in a demonic sphere). I wonder how you think about referencing in relation to recent work by Terrion Williamson (2017), Tina Campt (2017), and Saidiya Hartman (1997) on what it means to think about Black feminist political and knowledge production as practice, especially because your work offers stunningly new ways of thinking about knowledge producing acts such as error, process, listening, storying, grooving, experimentation, disappointment, and the repetition normally ascribed to artistic practice rather than academic work; would it be correct to consider this knowledge producing activity that appears in remarkable ways in DS to be part of a broader developing repertoire of honing and inhabiting in Black feminist thought?
Returning to feminism and the breakup song, you recount the awfulness of breathy apologies that feminists offer for years of excluding work by Black, Indigenous, and Native women and queer folks. You suggest that this incarnation of liberal feminism produces theories of equality by effacing and repurposing the ideas of women of color to alternative ends; at least one reason for the urgency in refusing feminism’s domestic sphere of knowledge, what coheres liberal feminism’s interior, is that you have another place to be, and I think it’s the place where you have wanted to linger for two books now; the demonic ground. On page 25 you write that Sylvia Wynter taught you that black women are radical theory makers and that black women inhabit demonic ground, which you define on page 23 as “this place, outside” (McKittrick, 2021: 23, 25). Dear Science provides epistemological tools for jilting an inside place inscribed with liberal feminist apology and problematic citational curation and moving expeditiously toward a Wynterian outside configured by disobedient relation rather than citational capital. Black spatial sensibilities, you always teach us, produce new relationships.
I see your breakup as a choice to abandon rather than negotiate or improve problematic sites of knowledge production; in that choice is the recognition that those places are actually already abandoned, intellectual sunken places. My reference here is not to Jordan Peele’s sunken place but rather to Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s (2008: 35); she writes that abandoned places are also “planned concentrations or sinks—of hazardous materials and destructive practices that are in turn sources of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death.” So I see Dear Science as a story about how concentrations of knowledge (in fields, disciplines, or footnote) sometimes enshrine abandonment and therefore in turn require it from us. You argue that normative citation is the production of whiteness as property, characterized partially by “the absolute right to exclude” (Harris, 1993: 1736). Dear Science, then, helps us rethink knowledge by delineating how particular endeavors (disciplines, intellectual formations, departments) in their modalities of what you describe as authenticated ownership become political geographies of organized abandonment, in which the consolidation of ideas amounts to extractive strategies with material consequences.
Thank you for making new possibilities for thinking about critical categories such as citation, plantation, list, and (especially) story. If Black interdisciplinarity is a way of storying the world as you argue, the mode of Black interdisciplinarity that you lay out provides for an intellectual commons defined by narrative facticity, Black temporal plotting, fictive theory, algorithmic poetics, unmeasurable livingness, and much more. To “story the world” as you do, makes possible new ways of thinking about knowability and unknowability, practices of narration and relation (McKittrick, 2021: 4).
Sarah Haley is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Gender Studies as well as director of the University of California, Los Angeles Centre for the Study of Women, Black Feminism Initiative. She authored No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity.