Have we, as a society, successfully eliminated the desire for achieving integration through political agitation for civil rights and opted instead for knowing each other through cultural texts?
—Hazel Carby, “The Multicultural Wars,” 1992
A tag is affixed to the toe that extends from the sheet. A mother backs away. Those bones are not my child. But the tag bears the name heard soaring over rooftops on summer nights of kickball. … Neighbors set down covered dishes and envelopes of money on the table. Everyone who’s kept faith through the whole ordeal wants to pay respect and leave. It’s somebody’s child downtown on a slab, so claim the bones, mother. Set the funeral date, mother. Don’t make a fuss, mother. You’re not yourself, mother. Let’s close the lid, mother. Let the community sleep again.
—Toni Cade Bambara, Those Bones Are Not My Child, written from 1979 to 1995
In a series of articles written between 1989 and 1997, Hazel Carby raised the disquieting suspicion that something had gone terribly wrong during the canon wars.1 In fact, something was wrong with the conventional wisdom that the proclaimed victory of multiculturalism over Eurocentrism, presumably indexed by the widespread adoption of multicultural curricula, represented an expansion of earlier civil rights struggles for racial justice. Carby noted the cold facts: the rising prestige of multiculturalism in education and national culture coincided with conditions that for Carby and others constituted a new U.S. apartheid.2 These conditions included hypersegregation, the abandonment of African American urban working classes to the impoverishments of deindustrialization, and the turn to mass imprisonment, especially of African American men, as a solution for social disorders. Thus the truism that neoconservative thinking alone was to blame for eviscerating civil rights agendas—a perception produced by the canon wars—was false. As Carby observed in 1997, “Our legacy of cultural integrationism works in harmony with, not in opposition to, the anti–civil rights hegemony first secured during the Reagan-Bush years and now [in the Clinton years] being implemented through an anti-affirmative backlash.”3
Instead of the culture wars or the canon wars, Carby urged readers to attend to the “multicultural wars,” the heading under which she republished her series of articles.4 The multicultural wars were covert wars that the canon wars dissimulated. Although liberal multiculturalism appeared progressive in contrast to neoconservative positions, it actually disabled effective antiracism, making it possible for people to satisfy their personal desire for racial equality while not knowing the institutional power and privilege they wielded in contemporary racial orders. Carby noted that students on college campuses who expressed approval for difference and diversity came from the same “white middle and upper classes in this country [that have] sustained and supported apartheid-like structures that support segregation in housing and education in the United States.”5 Moreover, liberal multiculturalism created a fatal detachment. It produced the possibility for multiple disassociations: of cultural production from people of color, of representation from context, and of antiracist intentions and desire for interracial exchange from activism for racial equality. Carby wrote:
In white suburban libraries, bookstores, and supermarkets an ever-increasing number of narratives of black lives are easily available. … [T]hose same readers are part of the white suburban constituency who refuse to support the building of affordable housing in their affluent suburbs, aggressively oppose the bussing of children from the inner city to neighborhood schools, and who would fight to death to prevent children from being bussed into the urban blight that is the norm for black children. For white suburbia, as well as for white middle-class students in universities, these texts are becoming a way of gaining knowledge of the “others” that satisfies and replaces desire to challenge existing frameworks of segregation.6
As it pacified white constituencies, liberal multiculturalism instantiated conditions for misrecognition under which self-identified progressive whites could become active constituents for educational and municipal policies that exploited and abandoned impoverished communities of people of color.7 Thus, the triumphs of multiculturalism brought to distraction an active politics of transformation.
In this chapter, taking a cue from Carby, I analyze the canon wars as counterinsurgency against the robustly materialist antiracisms of the 1960s’ and 1970s’ new social movements, including revolutionary nationalisms (Black Power, the American Indian Movement, Chicano nationalism), the third-world Left, the Asian American civil rights movement, black lesbian feminism, and women-of-color feminism. By the early 1960s, the façade of racial-liberal hegemony had begun to crack. In the wake of disappointments surrounding the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the death of the Great Society on the killing fields of Vietnam,” large numbers of people rejected the Cold War civil rights compromise. Its framework of legal equality, possessive individualism, and multiracial U.S. nationalism appeared inadequate for countering endemic racialized urban poverty and the continued denial of self-determination to economically immobile communities of color. The radical impulses of the long civil rights era, not beginning, ending, nor contained by racial liberalism, resurfaced strongly in new race-based social movements that actively rejected the cultural normativity, Cold War Americanism, and restricted liberal political horizons constituting sufficient antiracism for the U.S. state. Such movements stressed instead an antiracism focused on psychic decolonization, the creation of nonexploitative ethico-economic orders, third world–aligned internationalism, and new powers for new collectivities.
An idea of culture as powerful and transformative was key to many of the post-1964 movements, as recent scholarship has demonstrated. Robin Kelley, for example, has tracked the “freedom dreams” of the “black radical imagination” through black Marxism, surrealism, black feminism, and other domains, reconstructing an idea of culture as a domain for practices of autonomy and meaning making beyond post-Keynesian frameworks.8 Similarly, James Smethhurst has emphasized the inseparability of Black Arts visions of self-determination from Black Power politics in his recent study of black literary nationalism, and Cynthia Young has described the U.S. third-world Left as “the fusing of cultural production and political activism.”9 Roderick Ferguson and Grace Kyungwon Hong have also stressed the importance of culture to the epistemic-cognitive-political activism of women-of-color and black lesbian feminisms, which sought to hollow out the dualisms and normativities that unified interlocking systems of racialization, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.10 Such thinking proceeded from a definition of culture as a materializing social process, productive of relatively permanent forms of value, economy, meaning, and distributions of goods and resources. For radical antiracisms both cultural and political activism were seen as the practice of liberation, of bringing a transformed world into concrete being by performatively (re)constituting communal life.
Perhaps the most profound material cultural activism of the period was the insurgencies that took place on college campuses in the late 1960s and 1970s. Demands for third-world colleges, Black and ethnic studies departments, La Raza studies, Asian American studies, and Native American studies were attempts to seize the authorizing power of the university as a massive racializing institution where knowledge was produced, validated, and bound to effective power. Transforming universities was seen as key to liberation struggles as “students revolted against an education designed to create in them a pliant workforce and demanded a third-world college attentive to their working-class, raced communities.”11 Instead, they demanded open admissions for nonwhite students, the validation of the new knowledges produced by social movements, autonomy for black and ethnic studies faculty and students, and an education relevant to the concerns of marginalized communities.
From the 1970s to the early 1990s, universities, especially public universities, were extremely contestatory institutions. On the one hand, universities were still charged, at least rhetorically, with working toward the goals of Keynesian times: to prepare the largest possible numbers of students for participatory democracy and full employment. On the other hand, the economic downturn of 1973 to 1975 was also the beginning of the massive transformation of U.S. universities into one of the central institutions that recalibrated the state, capital, and the citizenry for post-Keynesian times. Increasingly throughout the 1980s, universities changed their human and knowledge outputs, refocusing on producing professional-managerial classes that were required for the new economy (i.e., free markets, multinational corporations, and development) and on producing knowledge and research that were capitalizable for globalizing industrial, financial, and information economies. While universities prepared the members of marginalized groups they deemed most valuable for incorporation into multiracial managerial classes, they generally left the largest numbers of marginalized communities to the abandonments of deindustrialization and resegregation and the downsizing of government mechanisms for maintaining social safety nets and rebalancing wealth.
For this new dispensation U.S. universities needed to produce knowledge about racial difference, but not for the same ends as the student movements. Rather, the essential function of the university in this period was to make minoritized difference work for post-Keynesian times—to produce, validate, certify, and affirm racial difference in ways that augmented, enhanced, and developed state-capital hegemony rather than disrupted it. To this end, English departments and discourses of literary multiculturalism did the lion’s share of the work, socializing students as multicultural subjects, commodifying racialized culture, setting terms of social solidarity, and generating knowledges about racial difference within a liberal-multicultural framework, framing race as a matter of identity, recognition, and representation.
Considered from the point of view of a material politics of knowledge, the primary effect of the canon wars of the 1980s and 1990s was executing a counterinsurgency against the new knowledges produced by social movements. In particular, the canon wars made it easy to misinterpret, misdiagnose, and even miss altogether the importance of culture as a materially transformative force. Instead, preoccupation with the canon debates framed discussions of culture, literature, and race in an exclusively pluralist framework. Generally, scholars narrated the canon debates as a battle between irreconcilable antagonists. In one corner were Great Books advocates, who defended excellence against mediocrity and national unity against cultural relativism. In the other corner were institutional projects to integrate universities and curricula based on the premise that our common culture was a multicultural one where all constituencies deserved representation. Seen from another angle, however, both of these visions competed within pluralism, with canon defenders advocating for an assimilative pluralism and canon integrationists for a positive pluralism. What they had in common was what most foreclosed the material cultural activism of radical antiracisms. Pluralism restricts permissible antiracism to forms that assent to U.S. nationalism and normal politics and prioritize individualism and property rights over collective social goals. It reduces culture to aesthetics and then overvalorizes aesthetic culture by ascribing an agency to it separable from and superior to social, political, and economic forces.
Thus, literary studies was key to making liberal multiculturalism official antiracism’s second phase. The productiveness of concepts of literature and literary value for the racial project of liberal multiculturalism—and the importance of universities for conditioning large numbers of young people into the dominant racial order—explained the otherwise baffling amount of national attention given to literature and English departments during the canon debates. As Bethany Bryson noted in Making Multiculturalism: Boundaries and Meaning in U.S. English Departments, during the culture wars “the Cultural Left and Cultural Right … shared an extraordinary premise: that every time an English teacher put together a reading list, the future of the nation hung in balance.”12
Construals of literary value that effaced antiracist radicalisms simultaneously produced a weak cultural pluralism that was in sync with post-Keynesian times. As multicultural ideas of integration, representation, and recognition in culture (the last narrowly construed as aesthetics) became the horizon for knowing race and antiracism, they deflected attention from the devastating and accelerating consequences of private capital’s economic prerogatives for black and brown lives. It thus became possible for multiculturalism to become a strategy for racial abandonment.13 Multicultural literature as a metaphor for a benign and inclusive multiracial America provided a loose sense of social solidarity that made it possible not to recognize or know the vectors of effective racialized power in the 1980s and 1990s, from the growing racialized inequality in economy, resources, and governance caused by deindustrialization and white flight to the advent of hyperpolicing of urban black communities.
Yet radical antiracist thinking and activism, although suppressed and disorganized, never disappeared. The real task is recovering the genealogy of a race radicalism that was always there but was actively misrecognized by liberal-multicultural uses of multicultural literature in order to seal the deal on the universality and fairness of pluralist visions. My recovery of this genealogy begins with a reading of Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child, a novel about the black community in Atlanta during the Atlanta youth murders of July 1979 to April 1981 that centers on the fictionalized experiences of one missing boy’s family. Bambara’s novel is particularly suited for tracking a genealogy of radical antiracism because Bambara as an author exemplified the tradition of material cultural activism that emerged out of the new social movements. A major figure in Black Power, black feminism, and women-of-color feminism, Bambara described herself as a “community scribe” and writing literature as the work of linking critical consciousness to social forces to foster “desire for a future as a sane, whole, governing people.”14 She began writing Those Bones Are Not My Child in 1979, the first year of missing and murdered children. During this time she was on the ground, living, working, and organizing inside the affected neighborhoods of black Atlanta, where by then she had lived for half a decade. Bambara worked on the novel for fifteen years, until her death in 1995, through the period of counterinsurgency against social movements and the rise of neoconservatism and liberal multiculturalism.15
Those Bones Are Not My Child can be read as an activist artifact from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, a kind of Eighteenth Brumaire of the disabling of progressive black struggle and oppositional antiracisms and, paradoxically, of their displaced continuation. Bambara’s novel represents the circumstances of the Atlanta youth murders in a way that provides a system of reference and meaning to analyze the losses of the entire culture wars period; to learn to talk about the abandonments of liberal multiculturalism; and to imagine the people, thinking, events, relationships, desires, pasts, and coalitions from which new empowered collectivities for revolutionary change might come. The title, Those Bones Are Not My Child, rejects the settlements of the 1980s and early 1990s; it refuses to not know and is unwilling to lay to rest the gruesome evidence that people were not allowed to live and were made to die according to design. This chapter’s second epigraph, from the novel’s prologue, is spoken by a mother who refuses to accept the substitution of anybody’s skeleton for her living child, in defiance of the community’s desire to trade a fait accompli for the serenity of disengagement. The passage bespeaks the novel’s preoccupation with documenting the remains of fragmented social activism and exposing the racially organized sacrifice of some for the prosperity, security, and well-being of others. In the face of neoconservative repression and the possibilities for dissociation and misrecognition that liberal multiculturalism enabled, the novel served as a survival guide for an effective antiracism in the 1980s and 1990s. Then and now, the novel’s protocol makes it possible to see and work to overcome the rift between a rhetorical commitment to equality and the material practices that guarantee unequal outcomes. Whether readers follow the blueprint that the novel lays out—to “learn to read the signs” that give the lie to liberal multiculturalism and then to act in accordance with such knowing—is the blank part of the text.
The Canon Wars as Counterinsurgency against the New Knowledges of Race-radical Social Movements
To understand the canon wars and the way that liberal multiculturalism was consolidated through efforts to foreclose race-radical materialist antiracisms, we must challenge the perception that antiracism has always and everywhere been the same. Antiracisms must be thought of, instead, as knowledge-power projects, as ways of linking representation and signification to fields of discourse and durable forms of social power. Then, a field can be perceived where dominant (liberal) and oppositional (radical) traditions of antiracism have conflicted and competed with one another in the postwar United States. Whereas the liberal variety has conceptualized antiracism as an expansion or correction of normal politics within ordinary constellations of postwar state-capitalist development, the radical variety has seen effective antiracism as something that necessarily unsettles normal politics in order to address the constitutive relations between racialization, capitalist development, and liberal freedoms. Whereas liberal antiracisms have preserved and expanded the idea that property and individual rights are primary—a linkage at the core of post-Keynesian state-capital settlements—radical antiracisms have called this idea into question.
Dominant or official antiracisms have privileged culture by endowing it with the power to fix prejudice and other human elements that can mar U.S. state and social institutions, which are otherwise taken to be perfectly sound. For radical antiracisms, however, culture does not just have the ability to mold human behaviors and attitudes, rather culture is a name for a dynamic-moving base of epistemology, knowledge, social relations, and material forces interlinked and in contention that sediment heterogenous and uneven experiences of the everyday. What has been at stake for radical antiracist culture work, then, has been to remake the culture of racialized liberal-capitalist democracy to make possible, imaginable, and sustainable new expressions of materialism, personhood, institutional power, and collective experience.
Considered from this point of view, we can understand the first, insurgent phase of the civil rights movement to be a prime example of race-radical cultural activism. Indeed, challenging the white supremacist and segregationist status quo in the United States would have been impossible without challenging the preconditions and limits that structured normal politics. Although actions like boycotts, sit-ins, and protest marches have usually been misrecognized as people wielding conventional economic or political power, such actions, in fact, radically pressed upon the normal conditions of the liberal-capitalist racial state. They placed the human rights and dignity of African Americans and a vision of an abundant life for all above the peace of the state and the rights of private property and the individual. Bus boycotts, department store sit-ins, and protests of segregated private clubs, for example, took on the sanctity of private property and exposed the perniciousness of public/private distinctions. They asserted, in effect, that putatively private interests—how to run a business, to whom to sell a home, who could join a club—represented public concerns and consolidations of social wealth over which everyone had oversight, customers and owners, members and nonmembers alike. Similarly, the demand to desegregate public facilities, schools, and employment represented a radical call to share the subsidies that the government had been providing to white people under the cover of protecting, serving, and educating the public. Manning Marable has described this radical call as the politicization of black life, an idea that captures two results of the radical political-cultural organizing during the civil rights era: (1) the extraordinary revaluing of black life and (2) the successful politicizing of the racialized everyday to the degree that racial justice sometimes appeared to be a more compelling social interest than did individual freedoms.16 Such accomplishments shed new light on opponents’ tendency to attack the civil rights movement as communist: in its fullest articulation the civil rights movement was a collective way of acting in the world that did threaten the apotheosis of property rights and rampant individualism, the so-called American way of life.
The Cold War civil rights compromise made it possible, however, to misrecognize the antiracist materialism and materialist cultural activism of the civil rights movement. In fact, Cold War racial liberalism had already accomplished a stunning transfer by attaching antiracist value to the defense of U.S. liberal capitalism. Whereas insurgent civil rights political-cultural activism made visible the constitutive role of racialization in capitalist development and the formulation and exercise of liberal freedoms, the Cold War civil rights compromise esteemed equal opportunity to compete and possessive individualism as the very basis and definition of racial freedom.17
When the radical material cultural activism of the early insurgent phase of the civil rights movement is recognized, the social movements of the late 1960s and the 1970s can be seen as the civil rights movement’s resurgence and renewal. We can then recognize Black Power, the third-world Left, women-of-color feminism, American Indian sovereignty and other movements as important and robust, even though their efforts were always under siege and partially undone. Although incompatible nationalist, internationalist, feminist, masculinist, and queer currents crosscut these social movements, each articulated antiracisms that prioritized collective thriving, material well-being, and self-determination above liberal-capitalist democracy as usual.
Importantly, all conceptualized culture as powerful and materially transformative. Literature, art, performance, publication, street protest, and any kind of cultural happening were understood to be means not merely for envisioning liberation but for practicing it. Rejecting Cold War civil rights and inspired by decolonization, such movements were interested in how cultural processes at the level of language, subject formation, and community building could transform material conditions. Artistic expression and culture work were to reeducate individuals for self-determination by shifting grids of social intelligibility to make clear the repressive qualities of the everyday and to provide possibilities for conjuring a more just ethico-political-economic order.
James Smethhurst has provided a sense of what prioritizing artistic culture as the practice of self-determination looked like on the ground for Black Power/Black Arts: a blurring between artists and activists, artistic and political activity, with people coming together in study groups, writing workshops, street gatherings, and political meetings to discuss a black aesthetic, think about gender relations and sexuality, or get a politician elected.18 Though not dogmatically anticapitalist, free schools and free school-lunch programs spun out of a sense that black collective action entailed an alternative ethico-economic order. Culture work in particular was to enable new sociopolitical forms. Thus, the largest black political convention of the period, the Congress of African Peoples in Atlanta, opened in 1975 with a reading of Amiri Baraka’s poem “It’s Nation-Time.” Conversely, poetry and fiction anthologies key to the Black Arts movement, such as Black Fire and The Black Woman, included essays for political education and debate.19
Perhaps the most powerful attempt to seize the material potential of culture and knowledge production was the black and ethnic studies movements, which grew out of revolutionary nationalisms and the surge for critical multiculturalism in primary and secondary schools. The goal was to transform U.S. universities—massive racializing institutions that strongly coordinated the production of knowledge to effective social power—so that instead of indoctrinating students into white culture and the status quo, they might radicalize them and come to work in the interest of the working class and communities of color. To this end, students sought to broaden access to universities, to validate new knowledges, and to make ending racial inequality a practical (not merely rhetorical) aim of university education. As James Lee has summarized, the goal of the ethnic studies movement was not to make curricula more inclusive or to voice unacknowledged identities; rather, “students revolted against an education designed to create in them a pliant technical workforce and demanded a third-world college attentive to their working-class, raced communities.”20 Black and ethnic studies movements across the country formed from coalitions among student groups, neighboring communities, and antiracist activists. At some universities, such as San Francisco State College and Cornell University, white students, viewing black and ethnic studies as a movement against racism, participated vigorously in boycotts of classes and campus building takeovers. By the early 1970s more than five hundred black and ethnic studies programs had been founded on university campuses.
Of all the radical antiracist movements born in the period, women-of-color feminism was arguably the most committed to harnessing the material power of literary cultural activism, which is connected to the fact that of all these movements the contradictions between women-of-color feminism and the U.S. Cold War state were the sharpest. As Ferguson reminds us, revolutionary nationalisms shared with liberal state ideologies an investment in heteropatriarchal discourses and sex and gender regulation.21 Second-wave feminism also had class and racial investments in the state’s normal functioning. Black lesbian and women-of-color feminism arose, however, out of an intersectional analysis of interlocking systems of oppression, including the relations between racial procedures, gender and sex regulation, and the exploitative forces of global capitalism. In the words of the Combahee River Collective Statement: “We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of an integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.”22
Because of this concern with how structural social and material processes subjectified women of color—that is, how aggregative and exploitative procedures of race, class, gender, and sexual regulation were experienced as the concrete realities of life—black lesbian and women-of-color feminism were strongly committed to culture as a site of material struggle. As Grace Hong has put it, women-of-color feminism “seized upon the imaginative function of literature and culture for different ends [than the nation-state], revealing and intervening into the dynamics of power that subtend knowledge production.”23 In fact, the most nationally visible enunciation of women-of-color feminism coalesced around the production and circulation of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), a seminal anthology of activist analysis in the form of literature, poetry, autobiography, and political essays.24 Insofar as it was a literary anthology, This Bridge did not belong to literary traditions arising out of aesthetics, American literature, or race novels. Rather, it arose out of the material politics of knowledge that engaged 1970s social movements. In part, it was a product of the black and ethnic studies movement, and was evidence of its partial success and institutionalization. The editors of This Bridge, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, compiled and wrote many of the selections for the anthology while teaching part time at San Francisco State College’s School of Ethnic Studies in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The functions and values that women-of-color feminism ascribed to literature stood in sharp contrast to the notions of literary value that emerged out of the canon debates and stabilized liberal multiculturalism as a regime of official antiracism. This Bridge has often been misread as an expression of racialized female identity. In fact, the anthology fused political, cultural, and social activism, and the first sense of literary value that emerged from it was the use of the project of collective writing to constitute women of color as a community of friendship and solidarity, a political movement, and a new subject position, “something else to be.”25 The editors and contributors to This Bridge proceeded from the concept of a two-way articulation between the empirical and the epistemological and saw that identity emerged as an unstable subject position subject to constant re-creation, with changing empirical possibilities and epistemological tendencies.
The value of the stories the women told in the anthology’s pages came from the meaning the stories revealed and/or created about how procedures of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other modes of constituting identity categories as differential interlocked in action with one another to shape the material and psychic infrastructure of women’s lives. Whereas Western knowledges could not readily grasp these processes, relying as they have on implicit conceptions of individuals as autonomous and abstract, analysis in a literary mode, committed to respecting the singularity of the text’s protocol, could make such exploitative processes visible by giving over singular representations of women’s experiences to the hearing of the specific reader. Thus, as Moraga wrote in the introduction, “The materialism in this book lives in the flesh of these women’s lives,” in how life was lived, for example, by a historically situated Nisei woman in San Francisco (Genny Lim) or a mixed-blood Menominee poet raised in an urban community away from the reservation (Chrystos).26
The act of anthologizing women of color’s experiences was collective making and politicizing. It turned experience into a mode of analysis, a basis for “a theory in the flesh … where the physical realities of our lives—our skin color, land, or concrete we grew upon, our sexual longings—all fuse to create a politics born of necessity.”27 This Bridge Called My Back, then, was an expression of women-of-color feminism as a political movement by virtue of its being an act of the writerly imagination conceived as social practice. On one level, this was manifest in the anthology’s focus on the actual and evolving relations among its editors and contributors. Anzaldúa, Moraga, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Chrystos, Jo Carillo, Genny Lim, and others signaled to one another in their contributions, revealing how the process of creating an anthology made them into a collective that also opened itself to the imagination, identification, commitment, and organization of other women of color.
A strong sense of literature as collective making, movement making, and world making can also be seen in Toni Cade Bambara’s foreword to This Bridge:
How I cherish this collection of cables, esoesses, conjurations and fusile missles. Its motive force. Its gathering us-in-ness. Its midwifery of mutually wise understandings. Its promise of autonomy and community. …
Blackfoot amiga Nisei hermana Down Home up Souf Sistuh sister El Barrio suburbia Korean The BronxLakota Menominee CubanaChinesePuertriquena reservation Chicana campanera
… [T]hough the initial motive … may have been to protest, complain or explain to white feminists … prior allegiances and priorities that supercede their invitations to coalesce on their terms … the process of examining that would-be alliance awakens us to new tasks …
and a new connection: US
and a new set of recognitions: US
a new site of accountability: US
a new source of power: US. (vi)
In describing This Bridge’s poetry, fiction, and essay as “cables,” “essoeses” (SOSs), and “missles” (more powerful than missives), Bambara casts them as urgent, forceful communications in a time of upheaval. Addressee and receiver are narrativized as cocombatants on psychic and worldly levels. She names the contributors using terms of relation (“amiga,” “sister”), with a situated, colloquial tongue (using Spanish, black English), and with a kind of specificity and hybridity that belies the easy categorizations of multicultural pluralism and cultural nationalisms alike (“BronxLakota,” “amiga Nisei hermana”), suggesting nonreductive alliances. The collective constitutes an “US” that was emphatically not the United States. Instead, this “US” was a pronoun, an intimate self-naming, powerful as a collective for itself. Bambara went on to rename this “the possibility of several million women refusing the numbers game inherent in ‘minority’” (vi).
The idea of a “new set of recognitions” linked with a “new source of power” gestured toward another value ascribed to literature by women-of-color feminism. For Marx in Capital, in order to be made over from a victim of exploitation to an agent of production, workers needed to grasp the singularity of labor power as a commodity whose use produced value. For women-of-color feminism, according to This Bridge, historical agency was to come from dialogic listening, that is, from learning a habit of relating to others without epistemic violence. Literature could help to train the reflexes for establishing ethical relations, even as it translated women’s desire to know one another into a political force. As Bambara wrote in the foreword, “This Bridge can get us there. Can coax us into the habit of listening to each other and learning each other’s ways of seeing and being” (vii). Bambara then used poetic technique to provide historico-mythic precedents for listening among women of color that were simultaneously epistemologically resituating and a form of political agency:
[Women of color will hear each other] as we heard each other in Fran Beale’s Third World Women’s Alliance newspaper. … As we heard each other in that rainbow attempt under the auspices of the IFCO years ago. And way before that when Chinese, Mexican, and African women in this country saluted each other’s attempts to form protective leagues. And before that when New Orleans African women and Yamassee and Yama-crow women went into the swamps to meet with the Filipino wives of “draftee” and “defectors” during the so called French and Indian War. And when members of the maroon communities and women of the long lodge held council together while the Seminole Wars raged. And way before that … when we mothers of the yam, of the rice, of the maize, of the plantain sat together in a circle … knowing how to focus. (viii)
Bambara’s utopic, archeological excavations of moments of hearing bespoke an irreducible place for imaginative work in radical social movements, whose work was constantly undone yet might be creatively redone.
Thus, literature’s value came from its utility in community making among women of color; in the practice of intersectional analysis of the racial, class, sexual, and gender dimensions of the lives of women of color; and in the kinds of accountability, reciprocity, and power it made possible. For these reasons Moraga and Anzaldúa could envision This Bridge as a “revolutionary tool falling into the hands of people of all colors.” Yet the editors and contributors to the anthology never confused reading and writing literature with politically and socially transformative action. As Bambara wrote, “Quite frankly, This Bridge needs no Foreword. It is the Afterward that’ll count. The coalitions of women determined to be a danger to our enemies. … The work: To make revolution irresistible” (viii). Anzaldúa’s introduction to the 1983 edition echoed these sentiments: “[T]oda palabra es ruido si no esta acompanada de accion … all words are noise unless accompanied with action” (iv).
In contrast, the canon wars made it easy to misrecognize literature as accomplished social and political transformation and used a preoccupation with literary culture to marginalize antiracist materialisms. During and after the canon wars, it was possible to read This Bridge simply as ethnic literature of dubious quality, valuable as representative expressions of the truth of racialized female lives. The canon debates and putative triumph of liberal multiculturalism made it possible to think that ideas of identity, knowing, and culture coming out of women-of-color feminism—ideas of self-determination, accountability, and the understanding of multiple vectors of oppression—were merely the same as positive pluralism: respect for multiple identities conceived as cultural property. Such counterinsurgency also made it possible to use literary multiculturalism as a tool to officialize liberal multiculturalism in extraliterary domains.
The canon wars were not fundamentally a scholarly debate; rather, the scholarly conflict they staged was a political battle conducted in the register of academe. On the one hand, neoconservatives used the work of politically sympathetic scholars such as Allan Bloom to hijack the Great Books tradition, originally constituted to revitalize general education at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. They attached it to a new color-blind defense of white power, itself harnessed to augment the political power of certain tendencies within the Republican Party in the Reagan era. On the other hand, university administrators represented multiculturalism to be an instrument of integration, representation, and recognition in line with the centrist politics of the Democratic Party (and the cultural ideology of transnational capitalism). Although outside the university the canon wars may have enabled Republicans and Democrats to bond with constituencies and achieve political gains, inside the university the canon wars mostly enabled liberal multiculturalism to defeat critical multiculturalism and to reshape the new knowledges produced by social movements into forms able to accommodate post-Keynesian social and economic imperatives.
Despite being cast as antagonists to one another, Great Books advocates and liberal multiculturalists had much in common that obscured (and thus diminished) the intellectual activism of radical antiracist movements. Importantly, both sides of the debate overvalorized and undertheorized literature in order to consolidate themselves ideologically. In doing so, each made literature central to its racial projects—the strategies through which each linked representations of racial dynamics to organizations of power and resources—creating different architectures that supported nonidentical systems of white privilege. In constructing the Great Books as the repository of the best thinking of the world’s greatest souls, neoconservatives cast the prestige of white culture and the privileges of traditional elites to be meritocratic. Similarly, by making multicultural literature a metaphor for a just America, liberal multiculturalists provided cultural solutions for racialized economic and social disorders that legitimated white privilege and consolidated class power behind a mosaic vision of multicultural inclusiveness and equal recognition. In addition, the dissenting sides of the debate amounted to competing positions within pluralism: on one side was a vision of assimilative pluralism that represented a Western tradition as the common culture of the nation; on the other side was a positive pluralism that portrayed America’s common culture as a uniquely multicultural one. Both centered the unity and stability of the U.S. nation-state in ways that excluded or marginalized culture and politics stressing self-determination and autonomy as necessary for material and political equity. In either case, social solidarity was imagined in a way that did not interfere with post-Keynesian divestments of state accountability for material well-being, keeping people of color out of Keynesian contracts and beginning to hollow out such contracts for whites.
Great Books discourse attacked and misrepresented the knowledges produced by new social movements in a manner that provided the terms for liberal multicultural “solutions.” In this case, “Great Books discourse” refers mostly to the work of scholars such as Allan Bloom, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Dinesh D’Souza, and Roger Kimball, whose popular books became neoconservative manifestos in the 1980s and 1990s. The term assimilative pluralism indicates, in reference to the Great Books position, a pluralism that recognized the existence of irreducibly diverse social groups within the nation-state yet among these groups evaluated one to be superior and, thus, to count as a standard or ideal. The defense of the Great Books as the standard for excellence (of spirit, humanity, knowledge, tradition) used literature to leverage the social crisis of civil rights desegregation into terms for a new assimilationism, which consequently made possible a new acceptable elitism, a restructuring of dominance.
Great Books constructed its own ideological coherence by misrepresenting the knowledge content of social movements as a kind of antiknowledge, simply the politicized opinions of separatists promoting racial pride and the destruction of the nation. They used the language of fascism to characterize the movement for black and ethnic studies as an assault against the university and democracy. Allan Bloom, for example, dramatized the movement for Black studies at Cornell as a military coup, while Arthur Schlesinger attacked the American Indian sovereignty movement as a “cult of ethnicity.” Great Books positions defended from such attacks the universal and apolitical nature of the Western canon of classical texts, imbuing them not only with moral and intellectual authority but also with the capacity to guarantee national unity and human progress. Any endeavors to expand or alter the canon—indeed, even to recognize the value of minoritized or non-Western knowledge systems—was seen as an attempt to misuse pseudoknowledge for political and divisive ends. In an example from the Disuniting of America, Schlesinger scoffed at New York State teaching guidelines that correctly recognized the Haudenosaunee political system as one of the inspirations for the U.S. Constitution: “How many [experts on the American Constitution] have ever heard of this system? Whatever influence the Iroquois confederation may have had on the framers of the Constitution was marginal.”28 He went on to insinuate that what was not marginal was the influence of the Iroquois lobby on the New York state legislature.29 Such arguments mandated that knowledge be apolitical and that anything political by definition was devoid of knowledge content.
Liberal multiculturalism also constructed its ideological coherence by misrepresenting new social movements, but in contrast to the Great Books position, liberal multiculturalism supported some social movements’ goals while constraining permissible knowledges to positive cultural pluralism. Positive pluralism in this case means a pluralism that celebrated the coexistence and irreducible diversity of different social groups within the nation-state. When discussing liberal multiculturalism as the other side of the canon debates, an important asymmetry must be remembered. Specifically, this side was not represented by scholars such as Bloom and Schlesinger and their high-profile manifestos but by a discourse of the center, an institutional project to integrate universities and curricula that upheld the idea that the U.S. common culture was a multicultural one. When individual scholars did come forward as supporters of a multicultural canon, they were likely to be scholars with deeper commitments to critical than to liberal multiculturalism who nonetheless defended some aspects of liberal multiculturalism in order to preserve footholds for more radical scholarship or to repel neoconservative inroads (e.g., Paul Lauter, John Guillory, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hortense Spillers).
Liberal-multicultural discourse was similar to Great Books discourse in that it rhetorically separated political power from intellectual power. Yet it affirmed the right of racialized communities to wield both, even as it policed the boundaries and disguised the force relations that determined the permissible content of politics and knowledge. This meant, for example, that liberal multiculturalists, in responding to Schlesinger’s disdain for the influence of the Haudenosaunee League on the U.S. Constitution, argued for the right of American Indian people to have political and cultural representation within the U.S. polity and educational systems. This defense at once dematerialized the work of communities and scholars to recover specific and diverse concepts of sovereignty emerging out of Native contexts and erased conflicts that emerged over definitions of sovereignty in putative government-to-government relations between the United States and American Indian nations.
One of the most successful mechanisms for institutionalizing literary multiculturalism in the early 1990s was the first edition of The Heath Anthology of American Literature. A conflict between liberal and critical multiculturalism can be excavated within the project of The Heath Anthology itself.30 Its editors were by and large committed to the intellectual and political projects of what Paul Lauter, the anthology’s chief editor, called “the 1968 movements.” Yet what the anthology actually represented was perhaps the best liberal institutionalization of critical multiculturalism (by this I mean that the volume’s liberal-multicultural transcodings sometimes preserved the legibility of a more radical multicultural context). The fact that this paradox continues into the present is apparent from the tagline for the latest and sixth edition of The Heath Anthology (2008): “Continuing to revolutionize the way American literature is taught.”31 The strange temporality of a continuing revolution results from misrepresenting (liberal) reform as epochal (radical) transformation.
The Heath Anthology differed greatly from This Bridge Called My Back in terms of its intent and the imagined community called forth by it. Though perhaps obvious, it is important to note in the shift from This Bridge to The Heath Anthology a shift from reading literature as a strategy for unsettling the normal politics of racial capitalist modernity to reading literature to experience in the aesthetic realm the ideal fulfillment of such normal politics. If the intent of reading literature in This Bridge was to diagnose power in terms of how interlocking oppressions targeted subject formation in order to strengthen a women-of-color movement, positive pluralism proposed reading literature to be an effective strategy to recognize and unify the multiple cultures of the U.S. nation. According to its introduction, the purpose of The Heath Anthology was to “truly [display] the enormous richness of the cultures of America.”32 In place of literature as the practice of self-determination, readers got representation. The “principle of selection” Lauter described for the anthology was “to represent as fully as possible the varied cultures of the United States. … To convey this diversity, we have included … material by 109 women of all races, 25 individual Native American authors (as well as 17 texts from tribal origins), 53 African-Americans, 13 Hispanics … and 9 Asian-Americans” (1:xxxvi). This numbers game reified the sense of the political that neoconservative Great Books discourse employed when it accused Black and ethnic studies of politicizing literature. It also obfuscated the political-cultural work of radical antiracisms that tried to expand the scope of the political beyond electoral politics to include, for example, economic organization, subject formation, and the politics of knowledge.
The narrowing of what counted as political was also apparent in the anthology’s staging of identity and agency. Though it did not portray American identity to be regulative and universal, The Heath Anthology did center white readers by making it a priority to grant them “access to diverse voices” (2:1764). Giving priority to white people as political agents who exercised their politics by choosing to “read a novel by a Native American writer, and thereby learn about the frustrations of living within that culture” (2:1764) correlated with overvalorizing the politics of literature because both foregrounded pluralist teaching for tolerance. Hence, the anthology at one point described the goal of antiracist social movements to be winning “the power to define literary form and value” and celebrated the 1980s, which might otherwise be seen as a period of racial abandonment, as the “time of the radical pluralization of the American literary tradition” (2:1769). In this way, The Heath Anthology substitutes a politics of representation for political materialism savvy to the cultural work of revising the social text through discursive intervention in the manner of women-of-color feminism.
Whereas Great Books advocates misfigured the epistemo-intellectual work of radical antiracist social movements through attack and ridicule, liberal multiculturalism obscured such practices by supporting and misrepresenting them. For example, the anthology placed women-of-color feminism within the politics of pluralism, miscasting it as merely ethnic self-expression. In the following passage, Gloria Anzaldúa, the coeditor of This Bridge, came across less as a movement intellectual than as a spokesperson for the therapeutic value of literary pluralism: “According to Anzaldúa, ‘What validates us as human beings validates us as writers.’ She urges people to express their beliefs and their individuality through the act of writing” (2:1765).
The competition between Great Books and liberal multiculturalism during the canon wars policed the terms by which race as a material activity of cultural agency became politically mobilized. Restricting race and antiracism to a pluralist framework, either assimilative pluralism or positive pluralism, made it possible to disconnect political economy from racial justice. It also constructed a common framework for competing racial projects that easily articulated with the 1980s dismantling of the Keynesian bargain.
The fact that “the word ‘multiculturalism’ became a pseudonym for canon expansion” during the 1980s and early 1990s affirmed the importance of literary studies as the chief producer and transmitter of liberal-multicultural ideologies at U.S. universities.33 Literary studies socialized future members of the professional-managerial class into progressive constituencies for regressive public policies and a grossly unequal system of global capital accumulation. That is, it taught them to perceive themselves as antiracist and multicultural—in line with the period’s corporate humanism—in a manner that allowed the material conditions for a new apartheid between haves and have nots to flourish. Students received pastoral care that integrated liberal-multicultural concepts into their sense of self-actualization and prepared them to manage populations abandoned to the punitive effects of post-Keynesian policies.
Liberal multiculturalism defined a number of protocols for multicultural literature, especially in packaged forms of the multicultural canon like The Heath Anthology. First, as with race novels, liberal multiculturalism identified literature as a means of information retrieval. Whereas the identity of the author of race novels was secondary for racial liberalism, for liberal multiculturalism the author’s racialized identity was of utmost importance because information retrieval for liberal multiculturalism was tied to ideologemes of representativeness, authenticity, and “gaining voice.” Second, literature was to testify to and teach about the race-differentiated history and present of the American experience, multiculturally developed. The story was to stay within the bounds of a master narrative about the civil rights movement that described the triumph of formerly oppressed minorities (symbolically African Americans) in defeating racism and gaining individual fulfillment and group dignity through full inclusion in American democracy and capitalism. Finally, a work of multicultural literature was both an example of the value of different racialized cultures and a commodified form of racialized cultural property. The idea of culture as property, owned by people of color, functioned within a consumer economy in which antiracism could be expressed by a desire for diversity that consuming racialized cultural property presumptively fulfilled.
Literary studies discourses interpellated white students as multicultural subjects within the productive constraints of liberal-multicultural antiracist thinking. Because multicultural literature was presumed to be authentic, intimate, and representative, white students with minimal knowledge of or contact with racialized communities could nonetheless presume themselves to have enough familiarity to legitimate their managerial-class position. The capacity of books (and other cultural commodities) to stand in for people was useful, considering the general decline in African American enrollment in colleges and universities and the stagnation of an average 89 percent white enrollment at elite institutions. As multicultural literary canons became emblematic of the post–civil rights era, reading them became a rite of passage, a means to simultaneously honor and participate in (the spirit of) social movements. Reading multicultural literature allowed white students to perceive themselves as participating in antiracist activism in a way, as consumers, that did not antagonize but furthered racial capitalism.
Literary studies discourses also interpellated racialized and non-Western students as multicultural subjects within the productive constraints of officialized liberal-multicultural antiracism. It instituted upon racialized students the capacity to get representation as hyphenated Americans (African-American, Asian-American, and so on) under terms that required the acceptance of literary multiculturalism as authentic and representative of racialized communities. This affirmation implied a host of normative requirements, including the recognition of diversity as an asset to new economic orders and permissible articulations of racialized histories, racial consciousness, and how to live and put forward one’s African Americanness, Asian Americanness, and so forth. As it did for white Americans, liberal multiculturalism promoted an aestheticized version of material conflict, racialized violence, and cultural activism. Crucially, the regulatory address of liberal multiculturalism hailed not only racialized students but all racialized communities; in this way, the university’s influence extended well beyond the walls of academia. Members of racialized communities who were not responsible, according to liberal-multicultural terms, were subjected to penalties, whereas college-educated minorities were placed in a comprador relation with other community members, with whose management they were charged.
Although liberal multiculturalism appeared antiracist in contrast to Great Books discourse and neoconservatism, it trained Americans to come to terms with racial inequality in a manner that allowed a new inequality to flourish based on the increasing prerogative of wealth on black and brown lives and on the abdication by the state of its role under Keynesian policy to remedy adversity. Official antiracism, occupied by a position that symbolized racial justice as cultural integration, could not take on the racialized consequences of 1980s post-Keynesian policies that led to a growing concentration of wealth and class power: the deepening hold of finance over all areas of economy and daily life; the state’s withdrawal from welfare, education, and social services; and increasing public policy for private gain, with municipal, state, and federal resources directed toward stimulating business rather than securing well-being. Liberal-multicultural antiracism cohered well with a post-Keynesian political economy for its dissociations, that is, for what it hindered people from knowing and doing. Its stress on the full recognition and expression of identity fit well with the emphasis on individual freedoms in post-Keynesian rhetoric, which helped to disable black activism by splitting off self-actualization from social forces arranged in the pursuit of social justice. For white people liberal multiculturalism made it possible to know and admire the cultural production of people of color, while dissociating them from accountability to people themselves. In addition, liberal multiculturalism’s stress on a mosaic representation of many cultures had the tendency to reduce and homogenize racial formations. This tendency made it possible to mask the growing class inequality internal to black, Latina/o, Asian American, and American Indian populations, to tokenize a racialized elite, and to pathologize the racialized poor. Importantly, liberal multiculturalism dissociated culture work from collective action, since it stressed U.S. national cultural harmony and individual expression over an idea of culture as a group practice of remaking self and society.
As James Lee has recounted in Urban Triage, the inner city was an obvious sign of racial abandonment in the 1980s that challenged multicultural triumphalism and notions of literary resistance.34 In Those Bones Are Not My Child, Toni Cade Bambara centered the social geography of black Atlanta during the youth murders in a novel that can be read as a survival guide for radical materialist antiracist cultural activism in the face of liberal multiculturalism’s foreclosures.
Those Bones Are Not My Child as a Survival Guide for Liberal-Multicultural Times
In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin described the Atlanta youth murders as a rupture in which invisible yet deadly global processes of race, authority, and economy became visible in the murdered bodies of precious children from Atlanta’s black working-class neighborhoods. “The present social and political apparatus cannot serve human need,” Baldwin wrote. “It is this apprehension that ferments in multitudes today, looking at the bodies of their menaced and uselessly slaughtered children, all over this world, in Atlanta, and from sea to shining sea.”35 Bambara’s novel made a similar intervention. It represented community activism during the murders as the last stand of 1970s social movement organizing in urban African American communities and exemplary of the kinds of discursive constraints and repressive tactics that in the 1980s drove underground the production of antiracist materialist knowledges, especially Black Power, third-world Left, and women-of-color feminist orientations. In memorializing this moment of shutting down, Those Bones paradoxically preserved (and could teach readers about) the daily practices that sustained social movements and how people integrated subjugated and undersiege knowledges and interpretative tendencies into their daily lives.
Remarking upon the educative and strategic functions of the novel, Joyce Ann Joyce proposed using Those Bones as a model for black studies. Considering that knowledge production at U.S. universities today continues to be fashioned to transmit and implant liberal multiculturalism as an official antiracism, we might also propose using Those Bones as a model for how to carry on the work of insurgent black studies outside the university, even as the contest continues over the university as an apparatus for validating knowledge about African American communities and racial difference.
Working inside and outside the university was something Bambara did her whole life. During the mid-1960s, when Bambara (working inside and outside the Black Arts movement) began to write and publish short stories, she was also serving as program director of the Colony House Community Center in New York City and teaching in the City University of New York’s City College Search for Education, Elevation, Knowledge (SEEK) program. As an assistant professor at Rutgers University (Livingston Campus) from 1969 to 1974, Bambara also organized black student groups and arts groups and won a service award from Livingston’s black community. Bambara moved to Atlanta in 1974 to join a thriving Black Arts and black feminist community centered around the city’s historically black colleges and universities. Bambara was a writer in residence at Spelman College (1978–1979), an assistant professor of Afro-American studies at Emory (1977), and an instructor in the School of Social Work at Atlanta University (1977–1979). Her first position in Atlanta was, however, as writer in residence at the Neighborhood Arts Center (1975–1979), whose explicit mission was community building through art. During her time in Atlanta, Bambara also cofounded Sojourner South, which was an ad hoc political coalition of influential black women, and the Southern Collective of African American Writers.36
Bambara experienced the Atlanta youth murders (also known as the missing and murdered children case) firsthand, living in the neighborhoods from which children were disappearing and being herself a mother of a middle school–aged daughter. According to biographer Linda Janet Holmes, Bambara deeply “align[ed] herself with those confronting the terrorism.”37 She participated in street patrols, monitored the media, organized, investigated, and made her home a relay for community information gathering and dissemination. Bambara left Atlanta in 1985 because she saw the opportunities for autonomous community work diminishing in the face of corporate development and a shift among Atlanta’s black leadership toward mainstream politics and middle-class values. Bambara continued to work on Those Bones throughout the 1980s until her death in 1995, during which time the closures Bambara experienced in Atlanta became mainstays of a post–civil rights America: neoconservative probusiness rhetoric and policy, the declared victories of liberal multiculturalism, and the sometimes confusing combination of greater mobility for African American middle classes paired with intense scapegoating of inner-city African Americans.
The murders of at least twenty-eight children in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, all black and most poor, gave the lie to the post–civil rights claim that race was irrelevant in contemporary America. They also belied the idea that multiculturalism was the only and the best way to organize a racially fair society, because Atlanta, nicknamed “the city too busy to hate,” represented the success of multiculturalism with its significant African American political power and large black middle and professional class. The missing and murdered children case led, for a time, to a flurry of antiracist organizing that ruptured the racial reaction accompanying the rise of Reagan conservatism. The high-water mark of this organizing was a Washington, DC, rally that brought together parent, labor, civil rights, church, and peace groups in the name of protecting children. The opening for antiracist organizing that the Atlanta youth murders afforded seemed to close after Wayne Williams, a twenty-three-year-old African American man, was convicted of two murders and linked by fiber evidence to most of the remaining twenty-six cases.38 Yet the matter was not laid to rest. The feeling remained (and has remained) that Williams’s conviction was rushed to smother the political energies of grassroots organizing, and this ambiguity has come to stand for whatever stifles dissent and obscures the everyday violence of racialized triage in U.S. cities.
By 1979, during the first year of the murders, Maynard Jackson, the city’s first African American mayor, was in his second term, and the city of Atlanta had undergone restructuring for entrance into globalization. On the one hand, Atlanta had experienced impressive economic growth, based on the profits of its financial sector institutions and Atlanta-based corporations exporting goods and services to global markets. On the other hand, Atlanta’s black majority had experienced its worst-ever economic conditions, with many people being made over into a casual workforce. If by the late 1970s and early 1980s formal black empowerment had been achieved in Atlanta, as measured by political office holders and the fact that some African Americans were able to benefit from the new consolidations of class power, yet during the same period Atlanta also housed a distinctly surplus black population whose members were consigned to the insecurities of a subproletariat.
Because the social, class, and racial stratification in Atlanta erected barriers to communication and because Atlanta’s dominant classes accepted that black children of the wageless poor would be at times subject to violent crime, the city’s power structure was slow to recognize the beginning of the youth murders. On July 28, 1979, the bodies of two young boys, thirteen and fourteen years old, both residents of low-income housing projects, were found in the woods outside a middle-class black neighborhood in southwestern Atlanta. Edward Smith and Alfred James Evans had disappeared separately, one last seen at a neighborhood pool, the other on his way to the movies. After they had each been missing for about a week, they were found within 150 feet of one another, one shot, the other strangled. Fourteen-year-old Milton Harvey, who led a comparatively affluent life, disappeared about six weeks later while running a bank errand for his mother; his body was found after a month near the Atlanta airport. That November, nine-year-old Yusuf Bell, a gifted child living in the dilapidated McDaniel-Glenn housing projects, near the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, agreed to go to the store for an elderly neighbor and never returned. Eighteen days later, a janitor found his body stuffed into the wall of an abandoned school, just blocks away from his home.
Yusuf Bell’s mother, Camille Bell, previously a foot soldier in the civil rights movement, demanded that the city investigate the murders as linked. She was ignored, and after many more murders, she joined two other mothers of newly murdered children, Venus Taylor and Willie Mae Mathis, to form the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders (STOP). Such collective action on the part of parents and community activists eventually forced the city (and later the nation and the world) to take notice, spurring the Atlanta police to create a special task force. For the next year and a half, until at least April 1981, even under curfew and watch, at least once a month and sometimes as frequently as once a week children and youth, mostly young boys, would disappear while on their way to school or hanging out at a mall parking lot or playing in parks. Their bodies would be found weeks or even a year later behind dumpsters, under bridges, and in wooded areas inside the city limits or outside them in Dekalb County. Their bodies would be posed as if sleeping or hastily covered, usually washed and redressed. Most were killed by asphyxiation, but many were stabbed or died from blows to the head. By the time officials claimed to have put a stop to the murders, the official task force list recorded thirty deaths, yet community organizations argued that the number was closer to one hundred and included a number of grown men and women.
Atlanta’s missing and murdered children case brought to light the chronic insecurity of black children from economically excluded sectors in Atlanta. It also mobilized African Americans in Atlanta to take collective action for self-protection and political empowerment. Block watches and street patrols formed on nearly every block and in housing projects. PTAs and safety organizations drew up safety rules for children. Ad hoc groups of neighborhood volunteers walked children to and from school. When rumors started circulating that the Techwood Homes, a large downtown housing project, would be the site of the next abduction, tenants formed a “bat patrol” to defend local children. To supplement police efforts, churches and other local organizations launched searches of streets, lots, and wooded areas to look for missing youngsters. STOP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the local NAACP were instrumental in keeping the pressure on the city government and rallying nationwide attention. STOP educated ceaselessly and also formed political awareness teams to encourage voters to elect prochild candidates. In addition, STOP mothers found themselves serving as spokeswomen not only for the situation in Atlanta but also for children’s rights to safety, stability, shelter, and education nationwide. As one STOP mother explained to the Washington Post, “The tragedy in Atlanta is only the most prominent example of a sickness that plagues the nation,” noting that an average of four thousand children were murdered annually.
Nationally, the Atlanta youth murders became a sign for racial realignment and disinvestment in black communities in general. Jesse Jackson, for one, argued that the murders “were only comprehensible within the broader challenge to affirmative action in the Defunis and Bakke [Supreme Court] decisions” and that along with rising white supremacist violence, they exposed the acceptability of black death to the new conservatism under Reagan.39 The tide of activism around the youth murders was strong enough to temporarily reverse the trend toward government downsizing. During 1980 and 1981, the Reagan administration and Congress eventually released more than $3 million in emergency funds to the city, mostly for youth programs. Community-based hypotheses about the murders arose out of awareness of violences historically inflicted upon African Americans, which were translated into possible explanations for the murder, including white supremacist violence, drugs, prostitution, forced-labor rings, and even medical experimentation. The willingness to consider these motives brought community groups into conflict with city, state, and federal authorities who were increasingly committed to a single-killer thesis.
Grassroots organizing around the Atlanta youth murders eventually blossomed into a national movement. On Memorial Day 1981, STOP organized a large demonstration in Washington, DC, that brought together a broad coalition of organized labor, civil rights, and child advocacy organizations and interests—a broad set of concerns unified by the theme “Save Our Children.” Such efforts appeared to renew the calls for substantive rights made by the civil rights movement and by race-based social movements in the 1960s and 1970s. All of this political energy was tamped down, however, upon the arrest of Wayne Williams and his identification as the lone killer of Atlanta’s youth. A self-proclaimed talent scout and former boy prodigy, Wayne Williams was twenty-three years old and, to the relief of Atlanta’s power elite, African American. Williams was tried and convicted for the murders of Nathaniel Carter and John Porter, the last two people on the official list of the murdered, both young adults with reduced mental functioning. Williams was then linked to twenty-eight other deaths on the official list by controversial fiber evidence. The novelty of the fiber evidence, the fact that most of the murder cases were not tried, and the timing of the arrest right after the Washington, DC, rally made many, including Camille Bell and most of the parents, suspect that Williams’s conviction had been engineered by the state to force the crisis to come to a close. Unease lingered and lingers still.40
Those Bones is an activist’s artifact, an Eighteenth Brumaire, of the disabling of progressive black struggle that nonetheless sought to teach readers how to keep the struggle going by learning what 1980s racial thinking (of the liberal-multicultural and neoconservative varieties) was making it easy not to know. We get a sense of this merely by comparing the list at issue in Those Bones—the list of Atlanta’s missing and murdered—to the list of canonical literature that obsessed neoconservatives and multiculturalists. On the one hand, both of these “lists” are at the center of efforts to challenge authoritative knowledge. On the other hand, the goal of expanding the list of twenty-eight dead to more than one hundred dead that is the preoccupation of community activists in Those Bones, who are challenging the state’s single-killer thesis, is incommensurable to the goal of opening up the canon of American literature to the work of minoritized authors. The incommensurability between the two lists exposes what gets lost when liberal multiculturalism determines what counts as antiracist politics: multicultural agendas focused on recognition and representation obscure everyday forms of domination and exploitation internal to the normal politics of cultural pluralism that stabilize racialized capitalist democracy.
The claim that Those Bones addresses the setting into place of counterinsurgent times is born out by the novel’s remarkable prologue. The prologue takes place at the precise moment when Williams’s arrest has resulted in an unwise diminishment of community organization. The prologue is dated November 16, 1981, five months after Williams’s apprehension. Its narrative voice is complicated: a first-person narrator speaks in a self-reflective second-person “you” voice. This “you” is perhaps the implied author, Bambara herself, yet it also importantly opens up to reader (another “you”), welcoming identification. This “you” is diegetically a mother who is panicking because her child has not returned home from school, and who “has good reason to know the official line [on the murders] is a lie.”41 As the mother runs down to the school, the narrative style emphasizes the uncanniness of community demobilization in the face of continuing danger:
Less than five months ago, you would not have been running alone. … Your whole neighborhood would have mobilized the moment you hit the sidewalk. … The tailor, hearing the pound of your feet on the pavement, would have picked up the phone for the block-to-block relay. Mother Enid, Reader & Advisor, would have taken one peek at you from under her neon and dropped her cards to flag down a car. The on-the-corner hardheads … would have sprung into action the minute you rounded the corner. (9)
After her child has been found in good shape, the mother sits down with a notebook that contains her notes and records of the missing and murdered children case: newspaper clippings, reports from block meetings, theories about the case. From these details the reader begins to understand how community activism has been disabled (for example, newspapers demonize STOP parents, reporting their actions alongside stories of parental neglect) and what has been left out of the official story (suspects never tracked down, deaths left off the list). In this way, the prologue literally reopens the case. The scene with the notebook, interpreted as an allegory of the novel, figures Those Bones as a means to transmit knowing outside the official story to a reader who it hails uncertainly as an agent of potential future collective action, despite quietism in the here and now.
The novel’s protocol thus renews the sense of culture as potentially powerful and transformative that came out of 1970s people-of-color social movements. In the tradition of literary nationalisms and women-of-color feminism, it finds the spirit of pragmatic movement building to depend upon the creative epistemic-intellectual diagnoses of power (and self in relation to power) that culture work enables. Its protocol also implicitly rejects both neoconservative and liberal-multicultural definitions of literature as either aesthetics of representative expression and insists on the materially cultural-political existence of the literary text.
The novel represents itself as a community journal of a community investigation of the murders. In keeping with the prologue, each section is dated in the manner of a journal entry, with the chronology beginning in early 1980 and continuing for many months after Williams’s arrest. Yet the journal is not bound to a first-person narrator or a consistent focal character. Instead, it seems to catch the sensual and experiential day to day of affected communities in black Atlanta from multiple, networked points of view as community members probe the conditions that might explain the murders and try to make the murders stop. At the center of the community investigation is Zala Spencer, the mother of an abducted boy, Sonny, who is never put on the official list. Yet the focalization of the novel extends from Zala to everyone around her or networked in by her investigation into the case, including Zala’s separated husband, a Vietnam veteran; their younger children; their neighbors; their extended family; police officers assigned to the Investigation Task Force; and a range of community members and activists. The polyvocality is part of the novel’s sense of historiography. Its focus on how history has been written blocks homogenizing, representative-making readings. It deploys fiction not as untruth but in order to write an imaginative counterhistory that is also a bid to disrupt the social text responsible for the authoritative history of the murders.
A major structuring element of the novel, in keeping with the plot of a community investigation into the murders, is the theme of “learning to read the signs.” Learning to read the signs is something that Zala Spencer, other characters, and the implied reader must learn to do. It involves both disarticulating official or authorized codes of knowledge and making meaning through unauthorized sources, including forms of practical consciousness and knowledge in line with black radical and black feminist thinking. As the novel’s central theme, learning to read the signs foregrounds the novel’s epistemo-intellectual activism and invokes an idea of literary value akin to women-of-color feminism’s intersectional analysis. The novel’s function, according to its own protocol, is to decolonize the political-epistemic-cognitive domain, to thwart alienation and make possible other doings.
For Zala Spencer and the other characters, learning to read the signs begins with child abduction; that is to say, violence disorders settled interpretation and exposes the falsity of what the ideological average maintains is true. Thus Those Bones begins with Zala’s anger, panic, fear, denial, and anguish as she realizes her child is not coming home, that other African American children are being murdered, and that the institutions of public safety are more capable of insulating themselves and managing public relations than of ending the killings. Her son’s disappearance produces an overwhelming need for her to find an interpretative system whose outcome will be the rescue and return of her child. This need forces her to confront the inadequacy, incompleteness, and closures of the sources of authoritative knowledge in Atlanta: the police, city hall, and ordinary morality. It also makes her receptive to subjugated knowledges that make comprehensible what should be impossible in any social order: that the unnatural death of children is allowable. She must learn to evade the deceptive closures of official truths and to recognize contemporary racial-political-economic codes that legitimately devalue black lives.
Zala learns to read the signs in part by traveling the killer’s route through Atlanta. The killer’s movements unmask the lie of Atlanta as a successful multicultural city and reveal the setting into place of a racial geography during Atlanta’s insertion into globalization in the early 1980s. Zala follows the trail from the glass towers of the city’s financial center to wrecked strip malls marooned by the highways of urban renewal, from where boys have disappeared while trying to sell car deodorants or picking up cans from ghosted industrial parks. The killer’s route sews together the financial district and black working-class districts. It makes visible a seam that might otherwise be denied and that sutures the new wealth symbolized by the downtown’s glass towers to the new vulnerability of black youth, who often disappear while trying to make it according to the entrepreneurial norms and values of the city’s transnational business class (for example, while reselling bottles of water or seeking to commodify their talents for the music industry).
Zala navigates the city in part through her own history and in part through the stories her father handed down to her. These stories make visible the past racial geography on which the present racial geography lies, the geography of urban unrest and civil rights militancy and, before that, the geography of Jim Crow segregation and, before that, the geography of Southern slavery. Most important, Zala’s family stories reveal urban space to be constantly rematerialized through racialized conflict and détente, especially through black resistance and containment. For example, Zala resees the strip malls sealing black neighborhoods off from downtown areas through the lens of 1960s civil rights actions, whose participants “demonstrated, picketed, and sat in with such adamancy that white business interests had built shopping malls along the Perimeter so Blacks could never flex that kind of muscle again” (85). In another example, Zala contrasts the killer’s (or killers’) easy mobility within the black inner city to her father’s story of how his parents and their neighbors would defend against planned Klan raids by darkening streets and arming themselves to counterattack.
Such submerged geographies direct the reader to look at Atlanta’s contemporary racial geography as no fait accompli but a terrain of struggle. One scene in particular indicates how the fight over Atlanta’s racialized materialization has continued into the era of globalization. Right in the middle of the financial district’s skyscrapers, in a misnomer of a park, really meant as a small green space for employees to stroll through on their way to work, a black radical street speaker claims public space for a lecture. Refuting booster images of Atlanta as a prosperous city too busy to hate, the speaker connects the financial killings that happen in the banking district to violence against social-democratic movements in the United States and globally. Catching his audience with the exclamation “People, what are we pretending not to know today?” the speaker connects the U.S. invasion of Grenada to union busting in Jamaica to stateside repression of the black freedom movement, including the arrest of two voter registration workers in Pickens County, Tennessee (167). The speaker continues: “And people, good people, right here in Atlanta, in ‘lovely Atlanta,’ someone is killing our most treasured resource, our most precious people, our future—our children” (171). Here, Zala faints. Yet the speaker’s innuendo invokes another system of signs for comprehending the murders, the meaning-making strategies of a third-world, black nationalist Left. However vague or unconvincing, the speech incites more thinking about how global militarism, harassment of labor and voting rights activists, and the Atlanta child murders may be associated with one another as expressions of the specific prerogatives of global capitalist expansion in the 1980s.
Zala finds that to learn to read the signs, to sustain counterdominant analysis, requires both a recalibration of self as reader and the constitution of communities of interpretation that sustain practices of reading. The following passage depicts Zala’s difficult self-training, how it is rejected by others as irrational, and how this rejection echoes a broader narrowing of what counts as possible in the realm of racial-national common sense (i.e., that it is not possible that acts of violence against individual African Americans are political):
All she had to do was pay attention and read the signs. Something was about to connect, she was sure. … The same day B.J. had reported that an investigative unit from St. Louis specializing in cases of sexually exploited children was assisting the Task Force, Zala had found in her soak dish an article someone had left there for her. It was about the John Wayne Gacy case in Illinois. … And in the bathroom a customer had left a newspaper folded to an update on Vernon Jordan, gunned down in Fort Wayne, Indiana, by a sniper in May.… “Irrational,” was Delia’s diagnosis. … “No connection,”… the FBI said in response to Black organizations all over the country dissatisfied with lackluster probes of Jordan’s sniping, other snipings, slashings, crossburnings, and attacks on Black people by assailants unknown or known to be white. (182–83)
As she begins to learn to read the signs, Zala’s creative epistemic-cognitive retraining sustains itself in and through the work in community it motivates. Zala’s investigation links her to STOP, block committees, neighbors, allies in city agencies, investigators of all stripes, and ad hoc national and even international actors linked to one another by the desire to affect political-cultural change under the banner of protection for children.
Spence, Zala’s husband, also learns to read the signs. The beginning of the novel portrays Spence as a striver “bitten by the Atlanta bug,” fully absorbed in his quest for economic gain (75). The disappearance of his son makes this former Vietnam veteran reevaluate his direction. He recognizes his (frustrated) quest for individual economic mobility in a seemingly open marketplace to be the result of a successful counterinsurgency designed to dissipate 1970s militancy and destroy the networks and intelligence that might have helped him in his current emergency. As he investigates his son’s disappearance, Spence feels the loss of the prior movement structure: “[H]e’d let crucial ties slip. Couldn’t even remember the last Thursday Night Forum he’d attended, the last African Liberation Day ceremony he’d helped organize, the last prison support committee he’d joined. If his life depended on it, he couldn’t say if the Institute of the Black World was still there on Chestnut Street” (116). As he comes to view the Atlanta murders as racial violence, Spence recovers an old sense of African Americans as a nation, now vulnerable, left without protectors: “The community had forgotten how to defend itself. Nothing was in place for war. … A bogus peace had been declared and the community warriors had placed their shields on the public pile and buckled up their honor in GQ suits” (221–22). Spence’s work to find his son eventually draws a reconstituted community of warriors into his orbit. These warriors are cast as ordinary African American men: a gas station attendant who has been beaten by the Klan, other Vietnam vets, a drifter and refugee from the Jonestown Massacre, and a community youth advocate. If the novel is read as a survival guide for radical political-cultural work in the 1980s, Those Bones’s figuration of these men as warriors reclaims demonized African American male identities, recasting African American men as skilled and experienced and still around and able to serve the community.
Approximately one year into the Atlanta youth murders, an explosion in the day care center of the Bowen Homes Housing Project in western Atlanta killed four children and one teacher. The explosion occurred at the same time that an international convention of white supremacists was being held in downtown Atlanta, organized by J. B. Stoner, who was widely believed to be the architect of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls. This confluence of events lent credence to the belief that the Atlanta youth murders were part of an organized anti-black hate conspiracy.42 Those Bones Are Not My Child narrates the day care explosion as a violent act that disorders hermeneutics on a broad scale for much of Atlanta’s black community, replicating the process of needing to learn to read the signs that Zala and Spence go through. The novel narrates the Bowen Homes explosion in a third-person voice that continually shifts focalization from various figures on the scene, some anonymous, some known to the narrative, others about to be known. This technique gives the impression of an event happening to a whole collective and to which a whole collective responds. This narrative style is in keeping with the novel’s staging of itself as a community journal. Those Bones narrates the moment of explosion from an insider’s perspective and in fragments:
A locket and chain ripped the skin of a toddler running with a slashed femoral artery through hot debris. Bawling babies crawled over blistered pacifiers, dropping scorched dolls on dump trucks smashed flat by scrambling knees cut on the metal edges of robots bleeding battery juice. … Teddy-bear stuffing like popcorn in the gritty air where glass spattered into the wounds of toddlers. Flashcards fluttered high against Venetian blinds clattering down on brightly painted furniture collapsed on a baby boy’s life. (277)
The explosion instantly creates a collective out of those who experience and witness it. The collective responds to in an almost utopic manner: everyone does everything they can in a coordinated and humane fashion. Again, the response is narrated from the inside and in fragments:
Residents poured out of Bowen’s buildings to pull screaming children, shocked mute children, stark-eyed children from the arms of the women [teachers acting as rescuers] who wrenched themselves away again. … Squirrels … were trampled by motorists who thudded down the slopes to help. … “Here now,” [a woman in a shower cap] said, holding out a dishpan of ointment jars, Band-Aid cans, and wads of cotton batting. “Take this along,” giving him [Speaker, soon to be a focal character] the load, then turning to take up a quilt folded on her porch glider. “They’ll need this too.” (277–80)
A kind of ruptural event, the Bowen Homes day care explosion turns learning to read the signs into black Atlanta’s collective activity. Already in the first moments after the incident, community responders begin to document what has happened. Zala and others film and interview eyewitnesses. Vietnam vets examine debris and cull information by following fire and bomb squad experts. Neighbors gather to tell each other the stories of what they have seen and heard. A group narrative begins to emerge about white strangers appearing in the neighborhood early in the morning and about how the day care center’s boiler seems to have imploded, rather than exploded, suggesting a small bomb was placed near it in order to trigger a larger explosion. The accumulating community record casts doubt on the version of events given out by Mayor Maynard and police officials: “There is no evidence of anything other than an accident, a tragic accident” (296). In rejection of this explanation, more community members mobilize to independently investigate the Atlanta youth murders. The novel depicts the growing momentum of these independent investigations by introducing new focal characters—a judge, a journalist, other Vietnam veterans, an experienced community organizer—who coordinate their investigative work with one another.
The most utopic alliance that forms is the Community Committee of Inquiry. In keeping with a reading of Those Bones as a survival guide, it presents a theory and a model of effective collective action. First, its membership encompasses multiple fields of expertise and unites different historical tendencies of the black freedom movements. Members include an LGBT activist, a Christian preacher, a Muslim organizer, a university lecturer, a police detective, ex-military men, and female elders, each of whom offer a variety of spiritualist, cultural nationalist, Marxist, black radical, queer, and womanist standpoints, among others. Second, each member is a renegade whose dissatisfaction with the normal conditions of their various fields has turned them into critics and activists. For example, the group includes a detective who left the missing and murdered children task force because of the lack of coordination of information, a teacher thwarted from organizing a PTA safety patrol, and an Atlanta Street Academy volunteer weary of the toll that police infiltration has taken on his organization. Combining collective education with on-the-ground investigation, the group researches white supremacist tactics, monitors CIA and paramilitary activity in Atlanta, and pursues theories for the youth murders beyond the psychopathic-killer thesis: cult-Klan, drugs-porn, drugs-arms, kidnap-labor-cult, and so on. Their activity culminates in a group raid in the middle of the night on a warehouse that may be the center of a weapons smuggling operation, a Klan business, or a drug ring and is possibly connected to paramilitary operations and the Bowen Homes bombings. Based on what they find in the raid, the committee puts together a packet sent to the media and government representatives.
Though it never enters public discussion, its influence, according to the novel’s protocol, is not necessarily negligible and, in any case, exemplifies a militant community’s meaning making continuing despite state crisis management.
The Community Committee disseminates learning to read the signs more broadly by publishing a radical newspaper, The Call. Read in the context of the diminishments of independent presses in the 1980s, The Call provides an artifact that demonstrates how to conduct and distribute black radical analysis outside the mainstream press. The content of one issue is laid out over almost ten pages in the novel. In the tradition of black worldliness, The Call “relates all the local, national, and international news to the specific situation in Atlanta” (419). A story devoted to clandestine prisons for the disappeared in Argentina appears on the same page as the committee’s demand that the Atlanta police expand their list of Atlanta’s missing and dead. Between the two stories, repressive techniques echo, as do people’s contestation of them. The Call also prompts learning to read the signs of global capital expansion, putting the despair of steel workers in Pittsburgh in the context of Mellon Bank’s foreign direct investment in steel production in South Korea. Finally, in the name of the missing and murdered children case, The Call advocates solidarity with black Britons marching to protest police nonaction in a case where the fascist British National Front is suspected of having fire-bombed black partygoers in New Cross: “Readers of The Call,” one passage states, “were invited to draw parallels between New Cross and Atlanta: slow acknowledgment of the crime, blame-the-victim, denial of racist motives, the Black-man-as-culprit ploy, and the discrediting of people’s right to mobilize, organize, investigate” (423). Such connections invoke a political-materialist antiracism that was increasingly marginalized by liberal multiculturalism’s ascendancy in the 1980s.
As it implicitly points outside the text, Those Bones directs its readers to learn to read the signs, to actively research and begin to reckon with deauthorized black Left and other radical antiracist knowledges. To try to decode the novel thoroughly, readers must turn to outside references to learn about the case of Joanne Little, the Pickens County Two, and the Tchula Seven and to research National Security Council Memo 46 and connections between U.S. paramilitary fighters in Central America in the 1980s and the resurgence of organized white supremacy in the United States. Those Bones, as an activist artifact that preserves leftist thinking in circulation during the ruptural moment of the Atlanta youth murders, seeks to communicate more than facts that may have become submerged; it also prompts readers to acquire the habits and methods that have sustained oppositional antiracist movements in the twentieth century: to connect domestic and foreign issues, to place race and economy in a global analytical frame, to resee problems posed as cultural and racial as economic and political, and to work for transnational Left solidarity.
Finally, the novel validates learning to read the signs intratextually through the chain of events that results in Sonny’s recovery and return to the Spencer family. Rather than random or miraculous, the recovery of a live child amid the deaths of so many others is made possible by Zala’s willingness to pursue alternate theories of the murders and to act independently. Believing in the possibility that a kidnap ring with a national reach has abducted her son, Zala sends out a mass mailing of missing child flyers. Her neighbor, a nurse networked into the investigation, agitates about Sonny’s case among her coworkers while doing relief work in Latin America. All of this activity makes it possible for another nurse in Miami to recognize that a near-dead, skeletal boy, unable or unwilling to talk, is not a traumatized Haitian refugee but the missing boy from Atlanta, Sonny Spencer.
Liberal Multiculturalism and the “Compelling Desire of the American People Not to Know”
The present chapter begins with Hazel Carby’s observation that liberal multiculturalism itself has set the conditions under which we have been unable to confront or even recognize policies and actions that have guaranteed the extension of racial inequality into the 1980s, 1990s, and now the twenty-first century. And I believe that her observations are meant to highlight the strategic, rather than the ironic, nature of this situation. The canon wars come across as deliberate counterinsurgency, with each side working to limit knowledge about racism to a pluralist framework that takes for granted as antiracist the primacy of individual and property rights over collective and social goals. The canon wars also made it easy to not know or to misrecognize the political-cultural work of 1970s social movements and their referential systems for race and antiracism, recasting self-determination as mere cultural autonomy and miscasting a concern with oppression at the level of subject formation as only identity politics. The kind of knowing of antiracism that liberal multiculturalism made available provided easy terms for social solidarity that were in line with post-Keynesian times: when the goal of antiracism is making the nation reflect the ideal of cultural inclusion that the multicultural canon represents, it is easy not to comprehend as issues of racial inequality the social service rollbacks and the apotheosis of corporate rights that restructure U.S. society for globalization. Those Bones can be read as a survival guide that keeps alive oppositional antiracist forms of knowing from the 1980s and 1990s. It used the ruptural moment of the Atlanta youth murders to preserve and animate strains of black nationalist, third-worldist, Marxist, black feminist, and folk and spiritualist modes of knowing race and antiracism. Its goal was not to produce the real killers behind the murders but, instead, to create meaning and reference that bring to light the banal yet deadly economic, rational, and governmental forms of racialized violence that threaten the lives of African American children.
But what use is this other knowing in the face of the fait accompli of liberal-multicultural and post-Keynesian management? What, if any, are the possibilities of translating this other knowing into other doing? The last hundred pages of Those Bones, the portion of the narrative that follows Sonny’s return, asks the question of how one deals with the “compelling desire of the American people not to know” (413). Its only answer is disconcertingly simple: it is to be found in what Avery Gordon has called the “sensuality of social movements and the day-today practice of instantiating an instinct for freedom.”43 It comes from the sense of the relationships that are built, the fragile constellations of collective intent, the resources that unexpectedly emerge in the novel as the characters go about the pragmatic daily work of handing out flyers, holding block meetings, talking to neighbors, sitting and thinking through new information, and feeling each other out.
In this daily moving in society with others, literature can play an important role. In the novel’s penultimate scene, Zala gives her first diegetic speech, set in a black Baptist church (figured for the 1980s and early 1990s as one of the few remaining counterpublics for autonomous African American organizing). Significantly, Zala begins her speech by quoting literature: “ ‘We have always been at the center of the theft.’ Andrew Salkey. ‘We are all each other’s harvest, we are each other’s business.’ Gwendolyn Brooks. ‘Question Authority.’ Alexis De Veaux” (658). The function of literature here comes forward as a lever for persistent critique, a method to engrain habits of relinking deauthorized knowledges and collective intent in the face of their constant undoing.
It was literature as part of the “sensuality of social movements” and the “day-to-day practice of instantiating an instinct for freedom” that gave it value for Toni Cade Bambara. Literary studies at U.S. universities—especially as it has generated knowledge about race—remains caught in the contest between critical and liberal multiculturalism, between antiracist materialisms and official antiracisms, and between “the day-to-day practice of instantiating an instinct for freedom” and “the compelling desire of the American people not to know.” For neoliberal multiculturalism in the twenty-first century, literary studies at U.S. universities sometimes go farther than producing the desire not to know; in conjunction with other discourses of difference, it sometimes helps replace systems of knowledge with ideologically charged information bits, a new kind of rationalizing violence that is the subject of the next chapter.