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t is a cold February afternoon on Zoom. I am teaching a graduate seminar on Black contemporary art and critical-creative praxis in Black Studies, and we are in our second semester of working, studying and creating together in the course. It has been an extraordinary course so far. Through studying the work of Black artists, cultural workers and theorists, we are journeying further and further from the Eurocentrism, elitism, and normative whiteness that have defined dominant notions of art and caused many of us to question ourselves as artists. This work has been rigorous; at once inspiring, challenging, and at times emotional, and intense.
We are all feeling particularly heavy these days. We are feeling the weight of February; of the winter, of two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, of hours upon hours online in Zoom meetings and classes; of academic theory and deadlines; of day-to-day life amidst pervasive racism, coloniality, and ethnonationalism.
On this afternoon, we are discussing the idea of the arts as white property (Kraehe, Gaztambide-Fernández & Carpenter II, 2018). One of the students, a Black woman, shares that as a musician in high school, her training was so based on white European musical influences that she was embarrassed to play jazz. Her comments incite me—I spontaneously pull up a video montage I have watched several times in the past couple of weeks while thinking about my review of Savannah Shange’s book. The video is called “Clapping on 2 and 4?”, and is just under 4 minutes long. The description offers: “Why clap on 2 & 4? Answers from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Dawn Hampton, and Duke Ellington” (Lewis, 2018).
“We are taught in four-four time,” preaches Rev. Wright at the opening of the clip, “that the dominant beat is on one, and three. …Now that is the European dominant beat. For Africans, and African Americans, it is not one and three, it is two and four! I don’t even have to teach you, you just listen to Black people clap to this song: [and as he begins to sing, the people clap] Glory- glorrry, hall-e-luuuujah; youuu are clappin’ onnn, beats two and fouuur…”
Next up, famed African American swing dancer, Dawn Hampton. She is sitting casually (I imagine her to be on a stool), and wearing a t-shirt, loose dark pants, a waist-pouch, and a headscarf. She explains:
It’s two and four that swings. So when you count: 1-2-3-4; 1-2-3-4; 1 [snap], mm [snap], mm [snap] mm [snap]-everybody!
mm [snap], mm [snap] mm [snap], mm-hahhh!
hmm [snap], huh-feel it! [snap], huh- [snap], uhh [snap]—It’s kinda’ like your heart beat. …Now hear one and three [snapping on the beat]: One [pause] three, one [pause] three; it’s called: corny [audience laughter]. Corny. So we’re gonna’ take you out of the corn patch, and put you on the streets, where it’s happening. C’mon! Let’s go uhhuh [snap], huh [snap], huh [snap], huh [snap], ahuhhuh-huh! …
Whatever the tempo is, when the music starts, first, feel the beat.
The third and final clip of the montage: Duke Ellington, with a snap lesson for audiences that he repeated in many performances. Speaking over the horns and wind instruments of his orchestra, Ellington offers:
I don’t have to tell you; one never snaps one’s fingers on the beat—it’s considered aggressive. Don’t push it; just let it fall. [snap, snap, snap, snap, snap…]
And if you would like to be conservatively hip, then at the same time tilt the left earlobe; establish a state of nonchalance. And if you would like to be respectably cool, then tilt the left earlobe on the beat, and snap the finger on the after beat—look. Then you really don’t care. And so, by routining [sic] one’s finger snapping, and choreographing one’s earlobe tilting, one discovers that one can become as cool as one wishes to be.
As the video plays, the energy that isn’t always palpable (or even present) over Zoom begins to bubble. We are ALL smiling, moving, and moved, some of us are laughing. The chat is erupting with comments by students expressing joy and gratitude and excitement. My own thoughts are buzzing again as well, thinking about the meaning gushing from this quintessential reference to Black music and to Black being: Black being swinging, snapping, clapping, stomping; Black being on the streets, where it’s happening. Black nonchalance, Black being cool, becoming as cool as one wishes to be.
“Does that feel better?” (I already know the answer). Smiling broadly, the student eagerly affirms that it does.
“And for those of us reading Savannah Shange’s book, y’see how this relates to her notion of progressive dystopia, and her assertion that “where utopia claps on the 1 and 3, dystopia claps on the 2 and 4” (Shange, 2019: 13)?
The chat blows up again with students expressing excitement about this rich meaning making. “Okay Okay OKay Prof. hampton”; “easy now, pedagogy!” Now we’re back in the flow, in the groove. Our energy restored (by) connection, relation, rhythms of Blackness; we beat onward.
Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, AntiBlackness, and Schooling in San Francisco by Savannah Shange (2019) offers a compelling examination of day-to-day life at a Bay Area high school founded on principles of social justice, and commitments to antiracist critical pedagogy. The school was established through the organizing of activist educators and racialized parents, and is particularly geared toward low income, Black, and Latinx youth. Shange’s project proceeds from the critical observation that despite these principles and orientation, Black students are disciplined and pushed out of Robeson Justice Academy at disproportionate rates . The school “pours immense resources into avoiding the school-to-prison pipeline through restorative justice and democratic practices, [yet it] still re-enacts the logics of Black punition and disposability” (Shange, 2019: 15, emphasis in original). Hence Shange immerses herself in the day-to-day activities of the school to examine how anti-Blackness remains embedded in, and enacted through liberal progressive discourses in education. In so doing, she reveals the workings of a people-of-color politics for which Blackness is enlisted as central, while Black students themselves can be deemed excessive and disposable.
In contrast, Black youth are the priorities of Shange’s project, and the book centers Black relationality: Black relationships, relations, and connections (including the author’s) with the city of San Francisco, with and among school staff, students and their families. In this way, Shange does not offer a distanced ethnographic gaze from on high; this is not a “they” story that feigns an objective observer and production of knowledge, nor is it a “me” story centered on the individual researcher. Rather, Shange (2019: 7) situates “[her] Black queer body [as] both research instrument and research subject” and tells a “we” story, of research and education accountable to Black youth and to learning from and with them about how we get free. She offers this work as abolitionist anthropology, a critical examination of the state informed by theories of antiblackness. Understanding ethnographic fieldwork as a collective, mobile, multifaceted, and speculative intellectual practice, she posits abolitionist anthropology as a form of Black study; one that “finds its answers in the register of the quotidian, in the cruddy, ordinary facts of blackness” (Shange, 2019: 9).
Shange employs dystopia as an analytic that reveals the boundaries and fault lines of progressive liberalism. Here, utopia and dystopia are understood as interdependent and co-constitutive impulses that test the boundaries of reality. Citing the work of Gordin, Tilley, and Prakash (2010: 6), Shange explains that while utopia is an ideal impeded/ obstructed by the real world, dystopia makes “various breaking points and vulnerabilities” visible, and is thus rich with possibility for other world-making (Shange, 2019: 12-13). Hence dystopia is understood as a visionary practice through which we can reimagine and transform the present the everyday realities of Black and Indigenous life within the (post)apocalyptic contexts of ongoing settler colonialism and the afterlives of chattel slavery. “Abolition,” Shange (2019: 14) reminds us, “starts at the end of the world, …[and] Black folks in Frisco have a lot to teach us about how to survive the apocalypse.”
Progressive Dystopia is firmly situated within the current era of Black activism and popular discourse in the U.S., and within critical contemporary scholarship in Black Studies. In addition to engaging key discourses in Black radical, feminist critical theorizing of contemporary Black life; Shange uses references to Black popular culture, as well as local and Black US vernacular and code switching—at times without translation. Such choices de-center normative whiteness and grow the points of entry and engagement with the study. The (counter)storytelling in Progressive Dystopia thus challenges and expands the genre of ethnographic writing in its simultaneous Black-centeredness, intellectual rigor, and refusal of academic tediousness. Shange knows the institutional and broader social environments of her study intimately, both as a former employee, and as a researcher. Her ethnographic storytelling is thus able to articulate the qualities and intentions of the school that make it “progressive”—indeed, “probably the best place to send your kid as a Black parent in San Francisco” (Shange, 2019: 102); while simultaneously generating a cumulative, scathing critique of the ways in which anti-Blackness and carceral logics are reproduced at the school in the name of white benevolence and social justice.
Progressive Dystopia is a theoretically rich text offering layered, polyvocal analysis that contributes several new terms that help us to think about the pervasiveness of antiblackness and carceral logic, and the antagonism between anti-racism and abolition. Shange offers the concept of “progressive captivity” to critique the ways in which liberal progressivism seeks to enclose Blackness, and to capture and contain racialized youth within liberatory education projects defined by a people-of-color politics mediated by whiteness. She goes on to theorize a notion of “carceral progressivism”, exposing the contradictions of progressive politics that, for example, allow school administrators to “lament the systemic racism of the penal system, only to call upon the police as ‘collaborators’ in protecting their vision of ‘community’” (Shange, 2019: 136). Carceral progressivism is a way to name and interrogate how liberal ideology and interlocking neoliberal state practices acknowledge social injustice, as a means of reinforcing and stabilizing the very relations and structures that produce that injustice in the first place.
Shange’s radically student-centered praxis reveals the resistance of Black youth as they encounter these contradictions, and expose the dystopic fault lines at which progressive reform hits its limits in encounters with Black agency. In richly described scenarios that play out at Robeson Academy, the willfulness, and willful defiance of Black youth—their demands for, and enactments of Black freedom—both surpass the imaginations and challenge the egos of school administrators. Drawing on feminist theories of the flesh (particularly the work of Hortense Spillers, and Elizabeth Povinelli), and her observations of and interactions with students, Shange offers another key term, “Black girl ordinary,” in theorizing how Black girls refuse to be disregarded and disposed of. The term highlights how Black girls’ daily lives involve navigating dominant notions of gender and Blackness mediated by popular culture and late capitalism; how “regular, degular, schmegular Black girls stay dancing in the face of state-sanctioned slow death” (Shange, 2019: 99). Black girl ordinary knowledge asserts “we don’t need no lifting, climbing, or saving. Instead, it improvises on social and aesthetic choreographies to disrupt the inherited rhythms of captivity, progressive or otherwise” (Shange, 2019: 99). (I think we might say, returning to Hampton and Ellington, that Black girl ordinary is about feeling one’s Blackness like a heartbeat; through quotidian “routining” and choreographing, she’s as cool as she wishes to be, and she really don’t care.) Shange examines this ethic and performance of self-possession for what it and the Black girls who enact it, teach us about an uncompromising quest for freedom. As David Stovall (2017: 332) has written elsewhere, “Freedom in this sense is making a conscious decision between schooling (order and compliance) and education (developing questions and skills to dismantle the current conditions—that which might abolish the current ways of being that continue to dehumanize people of color).”
In sum, layered and meticulous analysis and a captivating ethnographic narrative makes Progressive Dystopia essential reading that is both timely and socially and politically relevant across borders. Shange (2019: 10) provokes us “to care more than we can know” and to thus “extend our analyses past the ruins of the world (and the discipline) as we know it.” While the discipline to which she refers here is anthropology, her provocation applies equally to education and indeed to academic discipline/s in general. Her attention to detailing her practice and ethics as a researcher, including the inclusion of an appendix explaining her research methodology and providing interview scripts, makes this work all the more valuable to ethnographers across institutional contexts and areas of focus.
This is why upon reading the book I immediately started discussing it with students, and invited a group of graduate students in Black Studies to study it together. We too are concerned with Black freedom, and are studying within a context that shares a good deal with Shange’s (see Walcott, 2018). As in the U.S., Canadian teacher education and schooling at all levels remains strikingly dominated by white middle class liberal norms—progressive at best. In the words of Cedric and Elizabeth Robinson (2017: 7),
If we are to move the Black Radical Tradition forward, it is imperative that we understand that it is not utopian. Rather it is about questing for freedom. It is about the necessity of recognizing the importance of struggles regardless of outcomes. Nor does it begin and end intellectually. We must look beyond the straightjackets of race to understand common histories in order to make common cause.
Progressive Dystopia provides a rich example of how Black Studies, and Black and other radical scholars can and do intervene in academia with emancipatory research that not only informs but can transform critical praxis.
 Shange’s pseudonym for the school
Gordin MD, Tilly H and Prakash G (eds). (2010) Utopia / dystopia: Conditions of historical possibility. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kraehe AM, Gaztambide-Fernández R and Carpenter SB (eds) (2018). The arts as white property: An introduction to race, racism, and the arts in education. The Palgrave Handbook of Race and the Arts in Education. Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 1-31.
Robinson CJ and Robinson EP (2017). Preface. In: Johnson GT and Lubin A (eds) Futures of Black Radicalism. London and New York: Verso, pp. 1-8.
Stovall D (2017). Freedom as aspirational and fugitive: A humble response. Equity & Excellence in Education 50(3): 331-332.
Walcott R (2018). Against social justice and the limits of diversity. Or Black people and freedom. In: Tuck E and Yang KW (eds) Toward what Justice? Describing Diverse Dreams of Justice in Education. New York & London: Routledge, pp. 85-99.