My Daughter Hits It On The Head: Rebecca Walker on Leaving the Intellectual Plantation
As far as I’m concerned, one of the duties of any child is to help her or his parents whenever that is possible. Even the ones you don’t like or with whom you are constantly in disagreement. It’s like paying rent for womb space and some kind of constant welcome table. The table may have had only grits and cheese, but it has always been there for you.
I was about to despair, recently, when a thoughtful Italian journalist who, in a previous interview, had asked questions that energized my imagination, began to probe me for answers about the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the black community. What had we done, he seemed to be asking, to bring on our fresh misery?
Utterly fatigued already from an article title I glanced at on my computer “the Black Death,” I found myself describing how we had been “liberated” from hundreds of years of enslavement during which literacy was banned. That we’d been “set free” i.e. emancipated, in January, the coldest month of the year; with nothing but the rags on our backs. That we had never been compensated for building much of America, including the White House and innumerable plantations and railroads, etc., and that the forty acres and a mule temporarily offered to us, proved a mirage.
Hungry and freezing, we were forced to return to plantations that were the only home we’d ever known, to work for “wages” that would never stretch to properly feed our children or fix anybody’s teeth.
This was the start of what might have been a list of reasons why black “communities” have never enjoyed sufficient health care. And why today there is a shocking financial inequity between black families and white.
But then I thought: No. Didn’t my daughter write about liberation from this very fatigue I am feeling about this? As if my back, and not only my brain, is simply tired of being “the cause” of whatever, or the explanation of it?
Thank you daughter, for liberating yourself and so many others from this burden of “explanation” the country of America has never wished to bear. Though you are coming to this question through the lens of critiquing art, it is valid in innumerable areas, as you well know.
Leaving the Intellectual Plantation: On the Surrender of the Black Intellectual and the Resurgence of Radical Black Will
© 2019 by Rebecca Walker
As I ponder the critical premise of this exhibition and consider what helpful thoughts I might possibly offer, I am forced to reflect on the fact that I have written, lectured, and proselytized about black art, black revolution, and the endless why and what for of blackness for over thirty years. At various points in my life, I have critiqued the construction of blackness, catalogued its indisputable genius, and insisted upon its absolute necessity. Even as I have problematized race, I have loved blackness with my whole, entire heart. I am a child of the African diaspora and my own great force has everything to do with that blessed and inexorable fact.
The flip side of this gratitude has come the understanding that to whom much has been given, much is expected, which means, quite frankly, that I have given a lot, primarily of my mental and intellectual capital, and am, today, as a result, riddled with a specific kind of fatigue. In fact, I feel very much like the walking exhaustion of our technologically driven era, a perfect example of the Korean born German philosopher Byung Chul-Han’s subject: a casualty of neuronal burnout brought about by near constant engagement in seemingly endless and instantly accessible conversations about politics, creativity, climate change, spirituality, aesthetics, and everything else.
Per Han’s thesis, because of my fundamentally positive aspiration for expansion, connection, and meaningful impact, I have fallen prey to reaching for more than my mind can reasonably hold. The computer does so much so effortlessly, I think: why can’t I? Following this mandate I have cast my very self as the ultimate project to be developed and displayed and then developed again. My many iterations—cultural worker, revolutionary artist, gender fluid lover, vigilant mother, and so on–– ostensibly constructed to yield emotional zest and spiritual freedom, reparations and prison reform, organic figs and pomegranates for all, have yielded instead a strain of burnout that threatens to take out so many of our best minds before they are even born.
And so today, thinking (again) about what to say about racialized images of subjugation, I wonder instead about this neural enervation. What is the real meaning of this long yawn, this worrisome entropy, this pressing desire to escape to exotic climes and lie on a chaise for hours? What to do about the blood tests for thyroid malfunction, hormonal imbalance, blocked chi and stagnated gong? The wondering about chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, mold exposure, another disease whose name I don’t remember (burnout causes us to forget the proper names of things) that strikes mostly young women unaware: one day they simply cannot get out of bed.
As I pondered, I noticed that before facing this screen to write this piece I actually felt full of zest; hadn’t I just walked with the lions and cheetahs of the Serengeti, and been revivified by a moving, love-filled wedding in France? Suddenly the opportunism of my exhaustion came into focus. Didn’t it always rear its head around a question of race, of oppression, of egregious injustice. Always when a film or television show or book or play, trying to be diverse, got it so terribly wrong I screamed at the screen: Get it right or leave us the fuck out of it! Always when the news catalogued the killings, the privatizations, the torturing, the micro-aggressions and the macro-aggressions and the aggressive aggressions. And always, always, when asked to respond to any of it. Meaning all of it. Meaning being asked to fix the unfixable, meaning being tasked with solving the problems black people did not create. The futility of that. The fury of that. The I just can’t of all of that.
The I must get off the intellectual plantation of all of that. The intellectual plantation, you see, is where so many of us now live. We may not be picking cotton, we may not be mending the Mistress’ clothes or wet nursing her children; we may not be building this nation from the ground up, brick by brick. But we are still serving institutionalized racism, systemic oppression, white supremacy, by constantly being required to use a tremendous amount of our mental energy, our psyhic power, our intellectual spark, to decode, dismantle, deconstruct, demilitarize, demote, denature, all which threatens our extinction. As if doing this work will actually stem the tide. As if the end result of this isn’t a kind of erasure, a neutralization of a different sort.