The final season of the highly contentious television series Iyanla, Fix My Life premiered with a storyline starring Shay Johnson, a reality star from VH1’s Love and Hip Hop: Miami and Flavor of Love. Johnson appears on Iyanla’s show in hopes of healing a volatile family dynamic between her brothers and her mother, Ms. Sandra. Upon arrival, the producers ask Johnson and Ms. Sandra to participate in an exercise before beginning the healing process. The exercise includes a distorted mirror. A distorted mirror is a maze-like mirror, normally found in a fun house at a circus, used to distort and blur reflections so that participants cannot find their way to an exit door. Johnson and Ms. Sandra are given instructions to stare into a distorted mirror and state what they see. The distorted mirror symbolizes the distorted relationship between Johnson and Ms. Sandra. Iyanla wants to test their capacity to see chaos and acknowledge it. When Johnson and Ms. Sandra are asked what they see when they look into the distorted mirror, they state, “strong, powerful, successful, Black women.”
Iyanla is stumped at how they arrive at this conclusion since the mirror distorts and occludes what appears before it. Iyanla agrees that Johnson and Ms. Sandra are strong, Black women, but their celebratory narratives are in tension with what the mirror displayed. As Charles Long suggests, “the oppressed is tasked with molding meanings about oneself with contradictory language.” There have been many legitimate critiques of this reality series, mainly that Iyanla exploits and capitalizes off Black trauma. Yet, alongside these critiques, this scene of distorted mirrors is analogous to the contemporary liberal denial of the violent relationship between this anti-Black world and its Black captives.
As we shift from reality television to reality, we see that 2020 has put the horrors of Black death, Black living, Black faith, and Black joy on full display. At the time of writing this essay, there are over 1.3 million people, disproportionately Black and brown, dead at the hands of a global pandemic. Millions are unemployed due to coronavirus and facing housing evictions. In addition, we see no end to the deadly, intracommunal violence declared against Black queer, trans, and nonbinary folks. A helicopter crash and cancer snatched the lives of beloved childhood heroes Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman.
For those of us left to survive, we find ourselves, as Toni Morrison states, playing in the dark. Between Instagram Verzuz battles, club quarantine, Atlanta Pride weekend, virtual Black church, and national uprisings against Louisville, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia police departments, we have organized ways to stay alive. Depending on one’s sociopolitical location, these strategies can be understood as what Jordan Mulkey names as, “the politics present in our refusal of the way precarity precludes play.” We organize playgrounds to stabilize our communities, yet we find ourselves destabilized through the ways state violence commodifies “Black joy.”
Considering that this global pandemic only exacerbates the existing material, psychological, ontological, and metaphysical violence wielded by an anti-Black world, “Black joy” seems to be distorted with celebrations of American imperialism and its global impact on Black death. For example, Kamala Harris is the first Black woman to be elected vice president of the United States of America. Inasmuch as this is a historic election, Harris will now helm the genocidal wars against Black and Middle Eastern children. Neoliberal illusions of progress obscure the ways Black captives suffer from police and grey skies. As Saidiya Hartman suggests, there seems to be a need to “make narratives of defeat into opportunities for celebration; the desire to look at the ravages and brutality of the last few centuries, but still find a way to feel good about ourselves.” Is the Black captive’s joy the horrors of state violence? How are we to pose legitimate critiques of anti-Blackness when Black joy has become its performative stage?
To sharpen our gaze on the distortions between Black joy and anti-Black violence, we turn to the 2020 US presidential election. Stacey Abrams, former candidate of the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, whose election was stolen by former Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, became a central face for the Democratic Party. As battleground states fought to count every vote, the internet exploded in celebration of Georgia, who made a historic shift from red to blue. All over the nation, people raved about Stacey Abrams on social media, vindicating her from the gubernatorial defeat she did not deserve. Although Abrams cannot take full credit for Georgia becoming a swing state (poor, southern, Black women led these efforts), she still becomes the center of this historic moment.
As the nation celebrated, the Democratic Party (DP) seized the opportunity to commodify Black joy. While masking the party’s anti-Black violence, the DP acknowledged Abrams and the 91 percent of Black women who voted for Joe Biden as “the backbone of American democracy.” They exploited Black women’s resistance to a neo-fascist with a narrative of what is possible when Black women struggle. Furthermore, the DP capitalized off Stacey Abrams’s sexual assault advocacy to discredit Tara Reade, who came forth with sexual assault allegations against President-elect Joe Biden. In an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Abrams was asked her stance on the allegations. In order to keep voters focused on the main goal, which was to get Donald Trump out of office, Abrams denied the sexual assault allegations, maintained a unified front, and declared, “I believe Joe Biden.” As Abrams carried out her allegiances to the DP, she was still not awarded the governor’s seat, the vice-president nomination, or the end of voter suppression. However, what was achieved through the mammification of Abrams and Black women en masse was the neoliberal ruse of racial uplift, the ruse that causes Black women to function as what Brenton Brock names as “state stabilizers.” The ruse of social death.
Black death, be it social or physical, stabilizes state violence through what Afropessimism describes as a parasitic reliance on Blackness. President-elect Joe Biden successfully wielded an anti-Black agenda that includes a refusal to defund the police, opposition to universal health care, opposition to the Green New Deal, and a pro-Israel stance—all policies that decimate poor, Black communities. Biden’s success was made possible through celebrations of representational politics that narrate a unified poetics of hope, progress, and redemption. He even boasts in his acceptance speech, “The African American community stood up again for me. They always have my back, and I’ll always have yours.” This inherent parasitism between the state and Black flesh aids in white redemption. The redemption of the Democratic Party is made possible at the intersections of racism, sexism, fatphobia, colorism, capitalism, and the spectre of slavery. As Frank Wilderson expresses, “redemption is a narrative that feeds off the Black for its coherence.” Furthermore, the violence of redemption is blurred by Black joy.
It is no longer efficacious for us to deny the urgency of Black suffering for the illusions of Black joy. These illusions distort the gratuitous nature of anti-Blackness. Joy James unravels this distortion through her construction of the captive maternal. She states, “We keep our communities functioning. We will not abandon them because we love them. But, every time we stabilize our communities, the state builds upon that stability to stabilize itself. So, what’s next for the captive maternal? What’s the exit plan?” Well, the captive maternal must get clear on what we are up against and what it will take to maroonage—everything!
We, Black captives, are staring into distorted mirrors. We refuse to see the afterlife of slavery, a continuum of Black death at the hands of an anti-Black world. To break free, we need a clear gaze on Black suffering. This will require us to look toward communities that are most susceptible to death (poor, Black, incarcerated, trans, disabled children), to comprehend the magnitude of state violence. Further, epistemologies of those who are deemed disposable will help illuminate intracommunal violence and how Black liberation necessitates the impossibility of American redemption. As Patrice Douglass constructs, “the politicization of Black death functions as an operative mode of analysis to engage what is both specific and general about the formulations of anti-Black gender violence.” Once we realize the magnitude of our struggle, we must prepare to de-state our lives and wade in this fight for a while. As Calvin Warren states, “get over, getting over, and contend with slavery as the master signifier of anti-Blackness.” Once this momentum is built, we can prepare to run. We will run toward a place that does not yet exist. We will run through the valleys of the shadows of death. As Tea Troutman states, “There’s no map toward where we’re going, yet some of us still choose to run. Some of us are only interested in beating a path forward, not moving toward new institutions. There is more for us beyond fighting for communities we can never own.”
Can the Black captive find joy through this gaze of Black suffering and escape? Especially, since this joy that we have the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.