Ecologies of Black Liberation

Art and Activism as Sites of Protest

by Nicole Schneider

When James Baldwin asks in his seminal book The Fire Next Time (1963) whether he really wants to be integrated into the burning house of US society (94), he implies a possible and necessary re|structuring of deep-set social, cultural, and political systems. His question suggests a refusal of assimilation politics and integration, rendering him a trailblazer for contemporary movements for Black lives and Black liberation with their queer and unapologetic bases. The question of respectability and integration comes up in debates over possible successes and limitations of the Civil Rights movement, in contemporary sites of encounter and ostensible all-are-welcome events, as well as in institutions of art, education, and activism. Suggesting that the burden of seeking acceptance and change rests on the individual, this fraught view of integration rejects the role of society and institutions in Black liberation. This is what Baldwin—and many after him—criticizes in his writings.

Building on theories of critical ecologies, Black liberation (cf. Taylor), abolition democracy (cf. Davis), and the political theory of public things (cf. Honig), this interdisciplinary project based in American studies seeks to analyze such infrastructures and ecologies, including both the arrangements fought and the parameters of Black art and activism that surpass what Darby English calls the “black representational space” (9). What, English asks, has established Blackness as separate institution—separate sphere—in the art world as well as society and politics (26); and what, in turn, shifts the brunt of liberation onto Black shoulders, dismantling the inherently political status of Blackness? Taking its cue from Ann Laura Stoler’s work on imperial debris, this project will look at activism and art connected to Black liberation in terms of re|structured and unapologetic ecologies that reveal social topographies and critique ostensibly fixed positions (cf. Stoler 22). It will consider activist attempts at addressing and transforming infrastructures and instituting lived realities as critical bases for politics and democracy; and analyze artworks that deconstruct and question the existing ecologies of Black lives and liberation. How do art and activism of the twenty-first century engage with the questions of integration and re|structuring, with inclusion and positioning, and ultimately, with Baldwin’s radical skepticism toward the metaphorical house of US society?

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963. Vintage, 1993.

English, Darby. How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. MIT Press, 2007.

Davis, Angela. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prison, and Torture. 2005. Seven Stories, 2015.

Honig, Bonnie. Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair. Fordham University Press, 2017.

Stoler, Ann Laura. “‘The Rot Remains’: From Ruins to Ruination.” Introduction. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, edited by Ann Laura Stoler, Duke UP, 2013, 1–35. Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Haymarket Books, 2016.