Guest post by Anthony Reed
“ ‘Freedom Time’ is a question, an insistence, a plea, a command, a description of a time yet to come, and a reminder that the definition of ‘freedom’ is not given or limited to present enunciations.”
In the postscript of my book, Freedom Time, I meditate on W. E. B. Du Bois’ claim in his 1926 essay “Criteria of Negro Art” that “all art is propaganda and ever must be” and that claim’s relation to his declaring that black art has an obligation to “let this world be beautiful.” That latter phrase, and the ways it lends itself to both the idea of giving permission and removing obstacles, haunted the entire process of my thinking and continues to stay with me. In Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, the phrase “color line,” sometimes hyphenated, serves as a name for what blocks, distorts, and prevents the beauty of the world. In my reading, it makes the color line one separator between speech and noise, or between the intelligible and the unintelligible. It determines whether and how things appear, and is the line that I argue black experimental writing confronts, redraws, or ignores in its presentation of worlds that exist beyond, invoking Du Bois again, the “limitations of allowable thought.”
Though I wasn’t thinking explicitly about her essay, I can see with the benefit of hindsight the ways my book is also engaging with Barbara Christian’s 1988 essay “The Race for Theory,” where literature—and art-making more generally—becomes a mode of theoretical practice. “My folk,” she writes, “have always been a race for theory—though more in the form of the hieroglyph, a written figure that is both sensual and abstract, both beautiful and communicative.” Her sense of literature as “necessary nourishment” and collective endeavor rhymes very much with my own arguments, and I was happy to come back across it.
And yet, that “always,” like Du Bois’ “all,” gives me pause. To be clear, my concern isn’t essentialism. Rather than referring to principles or clearly articulate political concerns, claims of essentialism to often serve to derail certain arguments, especially those that start to reveal the ways universality is often a projection of particular communities, peoples, and practices. My hesitation is with the ways “all” and “always” threaten to still art-making and the practices of its reception—reading, viewing, or listening—into ontologies, the unfolding of a pre-existing unity, rather than the practices through which a collectivity understands itself as a collectivity, or understands what collectivity can be.
If for Stuart Hall, another figure whose thought informs my own at a fundamental level, identities are names we give for relations to the past, then “color line” is also a name for the various forms in which we contest the past and attempt to name the future. It is a complex assemblage of contradictory legends, rumor, claim and counterclaim, open-ended. It is from this perspective that I came to think of “experimental” as modifying both possibilities of literature—moving beyond the closure of received genres and conventions—and race, seeing race as open-ended, a name both for the ways people relate themselves to the past and the senses of history with which they might think pastness, which they also contest.
Black experimental writing exists at the nexus of experience and open-ended endeavor without guarantees. It is a name, finally, for what I would now call a black radical imagination, imagining new beginnings and beginning again, imagining possibilities beyond those already predicted by the present. This isn’t the imagination that black people have, but ways of surviving and producing the beauty necessary to sustain and nourish black lives, of reaching toward a future on terms other than those of the present. These are the questions that mark Freedom Time and its incompleteness, what it endeavors to do and what we must endeavor to do again: catch the movement of that imagination and figure out—emphasizing “figure”—the forms of freedom adequate to what it demands.
Anthony Reed is an assistant professor of English and African American studies at Yale University and the author of Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing.