The HWS Keynote Address I Would Have, or, Should Have Given If I Was Not Intimidated by Evening Gowns and my Unpolished Shoes

The first thing I was told when arriving to teach my first class at Hobart and William Smith Colleges was that it was built on a plantation. This wasn’t mentioned at the job talk. It was sometimes said in low tones by students as if it were a secret that if uttered too loudly would loosen some demons from the administration and the dorms. It was a knowledge to be whispered, to be kept close to the heart and transmitted through quick glances by students and teachers of color. I admit I was alarmed. Although for decades I’ve strenuously made the effort to continuously refer to the settler-colonial instance of the American state as a reformed, and ever-reforming plantation culture that maintained, in essence, its relations of production, governance, and its racial organization of discrimination, in my mind that was still a bit of a metaphor. I had never been on an actual plantation before and had no idea what to think and what to feel about my new job. I actually made an effort not to research whether this was true or not so that I could leave space for telling myself that these were some politically active students that were fed up of institutional violence and racism and so used some arbitrary historical fact to explain why marginalized students kept being put in the positions they were put in. But I did not bring myself to believe this; I still believe the students. And so this knowledge became hushed up and suppressed in my mind as well. It was something not to be affirmed as it would lead to a weightiness in my teaching and a worry and suspicion about the higher-ups. It would be hard to smile and code switch myself into a permanent job while in the corner of my eye I wondered if this or that tree was planted over a whipping post, or whether these American flags were flying over slave quarters. It was better to put my head down and think good thoughts. 

Looking back on it, however, I should not have feared the possibility that there was a history of enslavement and violence on the ground upon which the campus was built. Not only, because it is not possible to find a square inch of innocent, blood-free land in settler-colonial anti-black society, but that plantations were more than the raw facts of enslavement. They were, each of them, the site of the possibility of enslaved black resistance. If it were the ghosts and apparitions of enslavers that explained the continuation of racial violence on campus, there must also be the jumbies of black resistance that haunt here as well. If there are ghosts, or if one prefers, legacies of white power in the halls of campus, then there must be those spirits of black survival and thriving as well. And these spirits, this spirit, should not be erased from memory, or blessed away from campus grounds. They must be seen, charted and read in the tea leaves of every instance of a marginalized student’s survival. This black presence, the remnants and stain of black persistence on campus, is not to be found in the hung portraits of historical black figures however interesting and important their memorializing might be, but black presence must be found in presence itself. The material presence of bodies and ethereal presence, ghost presence, the remnants and persistence of survival culture. This presence is not the presence that is captured in dusty portraits of black alumni in Warren Hunting Smith Library, although it would not be an altogether bad thing if the fossilized ghosts of old white men were replaced, or to use a safer word, diversified — this presence must be a living presence, a cold wind felt by a professor whose bias would tempt them into giving a student a failing grade but they were worried that they were being watched, that there was something in the air. Black presence must be an awareness of a surveillance power more awesome than campus security, more like a California State Capitol building where black beret wearing armed women and men spooked the right wing into “common sense gun control.” It is a presence and visibility in public spaces when a master would rather have them keep their bodies and their troubles locked up in slave quarters and other designated and appropriately raced places. It is a presence that is found in library books that have not found themselves on any syllabus and yet are soiled, or anointed, with black fingerprints — the late night reading of Sonia Sanchez and bios of Charles Mingus with passages saved to be footnoted and so set to haunt essays on George Washington or even Orwell. And yes, it is also in the late night escapes, the refuges of intoxication, even the permanent maroonings of students wise enough to tell when a class is not a class but a killing tree. The Black presence that should be most celebrated is the haunting, undetectable shades that cannot be stilled on this or any other section of the country-wide plantation. The presence that should be celebrated are the beings of resistance that blend into the background whether they be ghosts, or cafeteria workers, or pained learners coming from pained places, or the reservation that takes the name Black Geneva, all the presences that persist despite the authorities attempt to holy water and air out the rooms. 

The campus was not built for black bodies, this is true, but this is also besides the point. Before a world revolution those who depend upon then availability of space designed with black survival in mind will be waiting a long time. One could wait but the equity train is not scheduled to arrive at this station. Instead, it might be better to take the metaphor, that is to say, the historical fact of the plantation seriously. What forms of life were possible in spaces that do not necessarily have black wellbeing in mind (these include the spaces were black well-being is paid lip service but only serves as a cloak to ensure an institution’s profitability)? What possibilities were there? The establishing of separate, independent, autonomous places of belonging? certainly. The exiled must forge their own places and modes of belonging and not wait for it to be charitably given. But also, there must be the studying the roots and plant life of the new world — to push the metaphor to absurdity. Space must be fought for here, yes of course, but one should not expect the arrival of an enlightened settler-colonialism. There are no easy victories and living spaces must be wrenched from power, however softly. But for the exiled there is no choice but to study one’s environment and study in it, to finesse and redistribute resources, to imbibe not only the work that is ordered performed by the master but to steal glances at the master’s world, the secrets of their power and the world beyond them. There are no such thing as a maroon that does not study the plantation or one that expects her freedom safely delivered by the representatives of slave power. The maroon — that is the runaway enslaved person that has fled the plantation and lives outside the reach and power of the master— the maroon takes the plantation seriously, not as an error of unenlightened people, the oops of otherwise good folk, but as the condition of existence in white supremacist order. And so, black presence must be simultaneously present and absent, to be maroon, fugitive, outcast and at the same time observant, studious, aware. In those tall grasses and macca bushes in the maroon settlements established after the second Maroon war in Xaymaca (Jamaica) called by the maroons Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come (If I didn’t send for you don’t come here) I guarantee you no one was waiting for the colonial administration while humming “a change gon come.” Black presence on the plantation was never only the presence of pitiful, exploited souls but complex networks of trickery, communication, exchange, solidarities and sometimes momentary fleeting happiness. These spaces are not given, are not to be expected, these spaces are independently constructed and where they exist already are maintained and protected. As the old folks used to say freedom is never given, it can only be taken. 

Before revolution there is no equitable campus anywhere. The point is whether we are to wait with bated breath in expectation that one day change is gone come or whether we build more Combahee River Collectives and black panther parties. Spaces that are designed for us and with our well-being in mind. Black revolutionary presence is different from blacks waiting for the revolution’s presence, in fact they are opposites. Black revolutionary presence is different from blacks waiting for the revolution’s presence, in fact they are opposites. 

No, I shouldn’t have been alarmed at the idea that HWS might be sitting on a former plantation. All American universities are sitting upon plantations and colonized land. All learning here takes place in minimum security prison. It is the same outside these walls. This is why the inclusion of a dark skinned woman in a movie that is not a sassy secretary is a mark of progressive politics and not merely a movie. It is why there are no viral movements of a black person having a nice day. Wall Street doesn’t rally at the news of the closing of police departments. There is no exciting, new start ups for reparations or ancestors.coms of indigenous land reclamation. There are no monuments to Red Nation activists millie rocking on pith helmets. All of these ideas are “out there” if we are polite and ridiculous if we are not, but their absurdity only measures the distance we are from a better world. So as long as the masters exist black presence on campus and in the wider world must continue his uneasiness, must ensure his feeling threatened. To give him the feeling that this person is not trying to make the plantation better, but the feeling of I think this person is gathering a suspicious amount of kindling.  As long as there is the plantation, there must be the space of the runaway, maroon space must be expanded and this expansion should be taken as seriously as leaders of empire consider their pushes for territory. Decolonization is not a metaphor. It is not enough to have black portraits on the wall and extend a localized black history month. The only black presence that is sustainable and I would argue is worthwhile is that which inverts the space of plantations and brings forth spaces of radical black freedom. Portraits and legacies fade. Free the land.

Thanks to Sankofa and especially to Yalemwork, Sarah and Chloe who invited me, and to the Africana Studies program who let me talk my talk in the first place and to all of you who’ve attended and who’ve made my time at Hobart and William Smith important and memorable.