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The Smog of Blind Flies: Blackness and Respectability

by Marquis Bey
16 Nov 2016 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10]

“We willingly believe that the madman is mad even before he begins to speak and that it’s from the depths of this madness, of this originally silent madness, that he allows the obscure words of his delirium to rise up, belatedly in some sense, and circle around him like a swarm of blind flies.”

—Michel Foucault, “Mad Language”

I often wonder—as I move quiescently throughout the world, always thinking about, quite simply, the survival of (my) Blackness—if I am mad. With every “dress up,” every coercive imposition of violently normative modes of “doing me,” every “fix yourself,” I incrementally grow more delirious, it seems. Might there really be something I am doing wrong? Or, more accurately, might I be being wrong? I fear the answer meanders too closely to “Yes,” for it seems very clear that Alexander Baron’s words still pulsate axiomatically: “The Negroes are of marvelous respectability.”[1]

Though I am no believer, and in fact one who prefers the existentialist’s life of utter absurdity (though I must will myself to be, like Camus’ Sisyphus, happy), the biblical words of Job 5:7 prove eerily true for Black bodies: “Yet man [sic] is born unto trouble.” Born unto trouble, like Lazarus’s and Kierkegaard’s sickness unto death, is the lot that befalls Blackness, that insurgent sociality unfixing the logics of whiteness, perturbing the order of purity. A productive, generative, volatile pathogen, Blackness is, refusing, refusing, refusing.

What, then, am I when I move through space—a mobile site of Blackness, clad in cargo sweats, bandanas, tattoos, and tank tops? What end do I signify; what destructive dystopia do I portend? “Respectability politics,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: “at its root, the inability to look into the cold dark void of history.”[2] Is this not what respectability is, the abdication of history, which is to say the whiteness of history, which is, too, to say the disintegration of Blackness? In Chris Lebron’s words, with as precise a definition of respectability politics as I’ve come across, “It is an ethos peculiar to black Americans insofar as it represents a disposition and set of attitudes towards (white) American society the aim of which is to preempt being pinned with a pernicious racist trope, such as being lazy, aggressive, uncouth, sexually loose.”[3] I don’t want to have to live on the preemptive whim of those who want me dead.

Oh, how I come close to crumbling with each jab at my sartorial indecorousness, my linguistic impropriety, my balky intellectual dispositions, feeling as though I am the Foucaultian madman whose words are deemed mad by virtue of some innate quality—perhaps, here, some epidermal quality—confessing my a priori linguistic and cogitative delirium. Immanuel Kant’s writing echoes over 250 years later. “[T]his fellow was quite Black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”[4] What happens when a tongue bleeds black? I vomit blind flies with each word in defense of the validity of my existence.


Mom: We gon’ have to do something with them sweatpants and that hair. It’s all well and good for now while you in school and whatnot, but when you get out in the real world—jobs and professional stuff—you gon’ have to clean it up.

If I could have spoken then: Am I not already “clean,” mom? Or do you presume, like many others, that the extent to which I have not assimilated sullies my corporeality? I imagine you all think I must be reformed; I imagine that you wish to ask me the very same question Du Bois was asked over a century ago: how does it feel to be a problem? I’ll tell you how it feels. To have an unkempt afro belying the propriety of fresh fades and barbershop-lined Caesars feels like I am on to something. To wear sweatpants—comfortable as all hell (silly me for enjoying comfort)—and tank tops, which themselves accentuate hulkish shoulders that all too often signify some kind of latent criminality feels like I may be proverbially pushing buttons that so urgently need to be pushed. To possess a tattoo count of sixteen, nearly inevitably leading people to think that I am “fresh out,” feels like maybe, just maybe, we have some more work to do.

If it is not respectable, if it is disrespectful, to “back talk” to parents, then I will risk the reprimand (my mom has a mean right jab) in hopes that anti-respectability will stir you up enough to rattle some synaptic miscommunication. My very writing, a veritable middle finger to Thomas Jefferson’s “never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration,”[5] refuses to succumb to respectability. Indeed, your urge to, in a word, respectify me disqualifies fugitive knowledge. It disqualifies, even before its appearance, the validity of knowledge from the non-respectable. How can I assert my worth in all its unapologetic Blackness if you deem it an impossibility on the grounds of its antitheticality to your respectability? That is: the fuck can I say if, before I even open my mouth, the validity of my knowledge gets murked by your demand for respectability? To you, by virtue of my immersion in the “undercommons” of Blackness, I can only speak nonsense. Sensibility cannot arise from abysmal Blackness, only buzzing blind flies.

If I am a problem, I ask you, what is it that I am problematizing? Should we not revel in disruption when on the other end is a world structured to eradicate us, mom?

“Respectable” comes from the French word respectable, meaning worthy or deserving of respect (c1470). In 1750, in the Papers Commissioners for Trade & Plantations, it was used to mean “Of comparative excellence; tolerable, passable, fair.” Such an interesting word, passable. Passable for what? For whom? And I wonder if “fair” might also be referring to hue. But, I digress.

Respectable, and respectability, was sutured to “politics” in 1993 by the inimitable historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. In a history of the Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church from 1880–1920, Brooks uses “politics of respectability” to describe these women’s approach to social life amid white and male supremacy. It is “a way of thinking,” she says, that “emphasized reform of individual behavior and attitudes both as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform of the entire structural system of American race relations.” As a response to the “controlling images” limning the ontological possibilities of Black women to lasciviousness, perpetual lethargy, filthiness, and irresponsibility, Black women stressed their cleanliness, chastity, industriousness, and frugality. I imagine them rocking pristine dresses, stuntin’ in the early 20th century version of fly kicks and Gucci bags. Flawless. So fresh and so clean, clean… Indeed, they woke up like this.

For Higginbotham, “the idea of respect means that you look upon me in a way that makes me feel that you believe there’s something of worth in me. That’s respect.” I think I would concur, and that concurrence is viscerally felt, by me, for Higginbotham’s scholarship and erudition. Her work, with no pun intended, demands respect. Women who were primarily maids and teachers, poor, and subject to the male supremacist whims of men adopted a moral authority that signified “I am worthy of respect,” and this authority is deeply political. “You don’t respect me,” Higginbotham’s politics of respectability says, “but I am worthy of respect.” Lacking money or status or education, the women in Higginbotham’s study derived their respectability and status from “what they would define as their character, and it’s a character that says we have to conduct ourselves a certain way at the very time that we fight for our rights.” These Black women demanded others to recognize them, to come correct when stepping to them. That, I gather, was their respectability, rather than an obsequious and sycophantic deferral to the terms and conditions of whiteness. Respectable people, Higginbotham makes explicit, are not the status quo.[6]

This is all really, truly dope stuff, and I can get on board with much of it. Black women deploying themselves in a way that said “You gon’ respect me on my terms” is, like, the most badass thing I can think of. I’m vexed, though, still. I am unsure what to think vis-à-vis respectability when I read the transcript of this interview between Higginbotham and Kimberly Foster:

[Higginbotham:] Somebody asked me once about the young woman who climbed the pole.

FH: Bree Newsome.

Higginbotham: Yeah. They said, “That wouldn’t fit the politics respectability,” and I said, “No, that would be considered the politics of respectability,” because she’s going up there [and] had she taken it down and screamed curse words and epithets and thrown the flag or something like that, that wouldn’t have worked. You see, this kind of righteous discontent, it’s a discontent, don’t think that this doesn’t mean that you don’t defy. Think of the Civil Rights marchers. When you think of those images from SNCC, when they are walking in there you see them in their Sunday clothes, but they’re defying the laws aren’t they? They’re sitting at those counters. They’re not going away when people are coming.

When you see all these white thugs are coming and they’re throwing coffee on them and they’re cursing at them, the world looks at that and sees who is respectable.

FH: It’s so interesting that you just said that about Bree Newsome because I never would have conceived of it in that way, but I remember that she made it a point, as she was coming down, to recite scripture.

Higginbotham: Exactly. That is my point. That is the politics respectability.[7]

Newsome, you say, was defiant, and that is respectable, or “respectful.” Respectability politics is defiant of unjust Law. People like Newsome are “not trying to tiptoe along with it such that they’ll be liked, such that they please the white man.” And I am glad. But you keep running with Newsome to the end, which is where I pause: “It’s about doing it in a certain way that when people see you, they see respect. For [Newsome] to come down reciting scripture, for Christian people who look at that, they respect her bravery. If she c[a]me down with profanities, that would have had a totally different impact.”

Why—why—did she have to garner respect via the hegemonic schemata of biblical scripture? As if to refuse such a tacit coaxing would have justified violence against her. As a doctrine that has no doubt provided a balm for the desecrated “souls of Black folks,” it remains that Christianity has a deeply fraught racial history—it’s not the same feel-good quotable when muhfuckas are dealing out forty lashes to the soundtrack of Exodus 21:20—and that the conflation of Christianity or religiosity with being “good peoples” or having “good morals” remains problematic. The non-religious, then, becomes immoral by default. I, to make this a bit more personal, become doubly immoral, doubly fuck-with-able by virtue of my Blackness commingling with the no-no that is my atheism. (I hear the verdict of Dred Scott singing here, even more broadly than before: I have “no rights which [any] man [sic] is bound to respect.”) And the perception of those who respect others on the basis of their religiosity is buttressed. Church folks nodding their heads and congratulating Newsome only when she recites lines from the New Testament, though eloquent, seems quite peculiar, as it appears that only when shrouded in perceived divinity is a defiant act deemed just. Why isn’t a “fuck the Confederate flag” not just as respectable, I wonder, perhaps even more so—you know, because the Confederate flag signifies the bedrock of the Bible-belt that is the South, that historically saturated terrain of white supremacy. Remember, “Christianity does not mitigate—much less refuse—such [anti-Black] violence.” In fact, on the real, “it renders such violence operable within its own logic.”[8] But, again, I digress.

Dr. Higginbotham—Evelyn, if I kindly and humbly may—I understand you intend for a politics of respectability to denote “the ability for you to gain respect,” but on whose terms? I know that, in this world, I, unjustly, cannot decide on the terms by which I will be deemed able to be respected.

But you say: respectability is not about one’s education or clothing but about “being clean.” Not even sure what that means. If I were “dirty” (by whose hygienic standards?), would others be justified in historically and systemically dissing me? I mean, if somebody wants to do harm to me, they’ll just have to sling a little dirt my way and then, boom, let the justifiable oppression commence. Your respectability is not about superficial things but about “Carrying yourself in a respectful way,” you say. But again, what does that mean? If it is not about superficiality—which is to say, about the surface—how is one to discern my respectability? Should it not be assumed on the grounds of my sentient existence (a better calculus of ethics than that deeply troublesome “ethnoanthropogenderclass” deemed “the Human”)? And again, your respectability is not about trying to be like white folks; it is, as you say, “about character, and it is about a moral compass.” But as I’m sure you know, morality can be very subjective, especially with regard to race and racism. I guess I’m wondering from which manufacturer is this compass that we hold to determine our morality? Which direction is the moral North?


Dad: Yeah, you can write about you not dressing up and all that, and I know you talk to your college buddies and professors, but you gotta understand you can’t be doing this when you get out in the real world. First of all, you Black and that’s already working against you. Just, you know, act and dress right for when it do count, you know?

If I could have spoken then: We have had numerous conversations about the way I dress, Dad, but I genuinely doubt you know why I do this, likely because you’ve prohibited me the space to speak, perhaps on the grounds of the fugitive trouble I’d engender when asserting the validity of Blackness. You know I incorporate it into my writing and my teaching—lo and be-fucking-hold, I’m doing it right now—but you have not asked how I do that or what effect it has had. Might that imply that you don’t respect my intellect, my rationale? Believe me, I know of the things you speak. I, like you, have lived my entire life enveloped in my Blackness, and, unlike you, know the very history fueling anti-Black sentiments. My decision is not some naïve, youthful rebellion that is intellectually or politically shallow. I index, always, that fugitive force simmering on the underside of the social. My goal in doing this is to challenge and undermine, and ultimately do away with, the assumptions that adherence to decorum are justly linked to a livable life. I do that not by dressing “nicely” but by dressing as I do and showing them that it has had no bearing on my ability or merit. The buttressing of oppressive perspectives mired in racist logics is not worth it, and, by flouting sartorial respectability in particular—since for some reason y’all can’t seem spar with me in the realm of the argumentative—I am making that explicit. Unlike some people (yes, your shade detection is accurate). This biased judgment is something I think is unjust, and I will not reveal that injustice by conforming to hegemonic standards. We do not solve racism or sexism (or classism, or homophobia, or transphobia, or ableism, or…) by continuing to concede to racist and sexist discourses when it is most comfortable.

I know you may say this is not how it works in the “real” world. Pause: first, I am not living in the “fake” world, so please do not set up such a valuative dichotomy between the places I be at as “fake” and the places you frequent as “real.” Take a couple seats there. Second, this is a moral issue for me. If I could change my skin color, would you suggest I do that since I am be judged negatively because I am Black? By your logic, you would have to say yes. What does that say about your commitment to, your love of, the Blackness that has in many ways birthed your existence in the world? The fact that I may experience bias because of my attire is not shame on me, it is shame on them—and now, shame on you—because they are the ones who are biased, “prejudiced,” as you say (are you afraid of the word “racist”?), and quite frankly rather goddamn stupid if they place so much weight on something that has very little effect on my ability to perform.

Dad, I am asking you: are you willing to be Black like me? Are you willing to love Blackness and all the fraught adornments that may come with it?

Randall Kennedy, Harvard law professor—which counts for something, I sincerely assert—has it out for me. And he doesn’t even know me, but he thinks he does. And perhaps that’s the problem. Who, or what, do you see when you see me, Randall? He wrote an essay for Harper’s—one characterized by Christopher Lebron, perhaps even undersellingly, as possessing “erudit[e] and exceedingly clear and direct prose”—that clocked in at exactly 6,394 words: “Lifting as We Climb: A progressive defense of respectability politics.” “Michael Eric Dyson does not wear casual street clothes when he appears on Meet the Press to do ideological battle with Rudy Giuliani,” Kennedy said. “He dresses up because he is rightly attentive to his image.” Fair enough. Kennedy’s parents inculcated in him and his siblings a racial kinship woven into the stitched fabrics of Blackness. He was taught to think of himself as an “ambassador of blackness” obligated to “speak well, dress suitably, and mind our manners.” Translation, in Kennedy’s parents’ words: “Don’t act like a coon”; “Don’t act like a nigger.”[9]

But, yo, niggers and coons deserve respect too; they, too, are, as the Combahee River Collective’s Black Feminist Statement says of Black women, “inherently valuable.” Your purported worth garnered on the approval of whiteness, Randall, seems to be leveraged on the flayed backs and broken spines of those coons from whom you are distancing yourself. And if your failure as an “ambassador” for a seemingly, cellularly deep, abiding, motile Blackness manifests at an inopportune time, which is to say at any time, your misstep gives license to others to castigate the Black body over there because, well, one Black body is the same as any other, according to you. It seems that you succumb to what Calvin Warren calls that “ultimate scandal or ontological violation” committed by the transatlantic slave trade: “black flesh is reduced to devastating sameness, and becomes interchangeable, or fungible, within an economy of exchange.”[10]

Kennedy quotes Brittany Cooper: “We’ve been trying to save our lives by dressing right, talking right and never, ever fucking up since about 1877. That shit has not worked.” He objects to her, in part, on the grounds that respectability politics has won us battles. Mental images and sepia-colored, fuzzy TV broadcasts perfunctorily shown in February of pounce to mind. The cultivation of a very particular and regulated image, Kennedy asserts, has mattered.

By dint of intelligent, brave, persistent collective action, African Americans have helped tremendously to transform the United States in ways that offer grounds for encouragement and hope. Indeed, the tone of indignant futility struck by some opponents of black respectability politics is worrying. The politics of black respectability has not banished antiblack racism, but it has improved the racial situation dramatically and has kept alive some black people who might otherwise be dead.[11]

Indeed, it has contributed to keeping many alive, and for that I am grateful, truly. But they did not live because of their respectability. They fought against the death of their sociality, a death that was to be, quite simply, respectable—eyes cast down, shoes muddied to make pavement room for white feet, in the back of the bus (to enter and to sit), utter silence amid the miasma of white voices. “Am I not a man and a brother?”; “Am I not a woman and a sister?” (“Am I not a person and a sib?” [for my trans and genderqueer kinfolk])

Respectability is not what saved those who may have died. The suits and nonviolence are not the things that fomented progress; it was the flouting of normative standards, of the status quo. And that is deeply anti-respectable. It was not the demure visage of the sit-in protestor or the cleanliness of one’s attire or the turned cheek of the marginalized and oppressed; rather, it was the unruly “out of place-ness,” the being “not where one belonged,” the theft of a life divested from Blackness, and “giving the finger” to established codes (and Laws) of conduct that did the trick. It was, in crass short, the veritable “This some bullshit. Fuck that!” What has fomented progress was fugitivity, being unruly, inciting insurrections, all of which are utterly anti-respectable.

No doubt proponents of respectability politics submit that they “are being realistic in telling blacks that the support or at least the acceptance of many whites is necessary to enact policies that will bring about substantial positive change.” There is sense in this. Allies are necessary, and loved. We love us some white folks. William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, the Grimké sisters—yes, gimme them any day; gimme Tim Wise and Andrea Gibson. They bring wreck to white supremacy—because they are turncoats. Turncoats are traitors to their epidermally (and gendered) professed allegiances. Turncoats “recognize that work done inside a community is for that community,” as Hari Zyad writes.[12] While Kennedy recognizes the necessity of our beloved white folks, he seems to allow them, and the white supremacy they index, to set the terms. Who is making the rules, I ask, of what counts as respectable? If the policies are for us to be permitted to, in honesty, simply live, then as crazy as it sounds, I think we should be deciding those policies on our terms. But I suppose adhering to Black “respectability” is an oxymoron to y’all, isn’t it? Like you, Kennedy, I, too, am concerned with “surviving and thriving,” but you seem to survive by opting into the securities of a whiteness that buttresses itself on the desecration of those who choose not to do the same. Your focus is on the wrong party: it is not me (or you, for that matter) who needs reform; it is them.

At base, it “cedes the terms of respect to the white racist imagination.” From the jump we’re starting from “a moral standard that excludes blackness, in all its forms,” foreclosing the ability to “achieve respect from the system because we’ve been defined out of it before we can finish our double windsors.”[13]

Sensibly, you are not “defending observance of conventional propriety as a timeless principle,” but are simply “saying that there are occasions when deploying respectability can be useful and ought to be done.” But when are those occasions? For whose benefit? For yours, of course; for you to remain alive, you might respond. But death does not only take the form of a heart’s last beat. I am not the problem, and I am not the one who must contort my existence to fit a system that wishes to expurgate me. You are focusing on what I need to do to suit this person’s bias? That’s on me? Sorry, but no. But actually, “I ain’t sorry. Nigga, nah,” as Queen Bey so succinctly put it.

I am one of those observers you speak of that reject any demand on marginalized folks to bear responsibility for their injurious predicaments. You equivocate on whether this predicament is fair or not—though there is no question, no reason to equivocate—and suggest that the injured, too, must do the hard work of healing. You almost converted me with this, Randall. That is not a sarcastic jab; you truly almost convinced me through challenging my line of reasoning. Whether or not demanding the injured to assiduously commit themselves to their healing is fair, you say,

responding positively to it may be the fastest way for some blacks to attain a semblance of the lives they want. A person injured by a drunk driver has to take it upon herself to participate in the hard work of rehabilitation even if she played no role in her own victimization. Similarly, deprivations that are wholly attributable to white racism may still force blacks to work hard at personal and collective advancement if they are to have any chance of continued elevation.[14]

This is true, and we want nothing more than for the pain to end. But: the drunk driver never left. That driver is still intoxicated, the car is still on top of our pummeled bodies, and no one has issued this driver a DUI. And the person under the wheels of that car, writhing in pain, yelling that they cannot breath, is being told to chillax, it’s not a big deal, you’re making a fuss over nothing, there are others who have been hit by cars, you selfish, whining baby. So though I love the feminine-gendered pronoun usage, for real, your analogy is suspect. Once the driver sobers up, impounds the car, completes step twelve, and pays for the hospital fees, then we can talk about my role in contributing to my healing process.


Ray D., a white man, commented on my essay responding to Robert Jones Jr.’s piece “The Matter of Forgiveness.”

Ray: There was an article about aversion to race, it actually made sense, but me thinks it all eventually falls upon the garbage dump of self pity if one dwells long upon injustice in the U.S.A. I saw color disappear in combat, it disappeared with cohabitation. I think color and prejudice today is really a personal choice, so why should I limit myself?

[“Me thinks”? Seriously, yo? Go somewhere with that…]

When I did speak then (Re: Facebook status: “If another white dude tries to ‘school’ me on race by whitesplaining his way into an oblivious corner, with the perfunctory mentioning of the ‘disappearance’ of color in military combat, I may be forced to become more unpleasant…”): It is not self-pity to recognize the racialized violence and terror that betides people of Color in the U.S. It is my life and I will not sacrifice it because it displeases you or others. Color is no mere individualistic choice (this much should be obvious): I did not choose to inherit the legacy of systemic and historical racism, a legacy that has visceral, material, psychological consequences. I cannot choose the effects that my Blackness has on timid white folks, and am, as Baldwin says, “at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people”; I cannot choose to simply not see color and its fatal effects when my Blackness is at risk of being exterminated on the basis, solely, of racial biases; I cannot choose to simply absolve the so-called “burden” of my Blackness when I am less likely to be hired than a white man with a drug felony, more likely to be poor due to housing and educational discrimination, and eco apartheid (which is the product of white supremacist segregation and often causes children in impoverished ghettos to exhibit symptoms similar to war vets’ PTSD — you know about that, as someone who was in combat, right?).

Race is not a limit; it is mired in history, in the contemporary, and to see it as a hindrance disallows you to adequately understand, I think, the workings of that history, a history that has made this country and the world what it currently is. And you may have seen color disappear in combat, but that is a luxury that too many others did not see. Tell that to those who fought the Double V campaign; tell that to those for whom “combat” is waged daily on their Black bodies here in the land of the free. As they say — as we say — “stay woke.” Though, sadly, I’m afraid you’ve been asleep since birth.

Ray didn’t reply.

AM I GOING MAD? How much more does “the looking away” have to persist before it is just looking? I am fearful of that day, for if it comes, I will be obliterated. Yet, they tell me if I just check all the boxes of respectability I’ll be okay. I wonder if they said that to Skip Gates too, in 2009, when he was in cuffs on his front porch. No, wait, he was inside his home, mere footsteps away from his living room. 17 Ware Street turned into Cell Block D. And Sgt. Crowley was the warden, keeping respectable order. And, apparently, there is nothing orderly, and nothing worthy of respect, about Blackness.

Still, when accosted daily with the arrogation of your claim to exist boldly in the all of yourself, you begin to think yourself mad. Might I be congenitally cursed, might this skin that I’m in inevitably signify the ramblings of insanity? I so very badly wish to proclaim that I am fine exactly how I am. I am in need of no reform; I, simply by inhabiting sentient life, am respectable, which renders “respectability” a null term. It would then be unconditional and without question. Your standard is to my detriment, as it seems to operate to assuage whiteness’s misgivings about my presence. I wonder if your respectability politics is merely a politics of tolerability. And problems are tolerated. And “precisely because the presumption in white society is that black children are possible future problems,” Christopher Lebron writes in his response to Kennedy, “parents like Kennedy’s train their children to be tolerated—to fly as low as possible under the radar to escape harm and secure material success.”[15] What does it say that one’s lot is to seek, and be content with, toleration rather than unapologetic immersion in the all of oneself?

I think my madness, whether literal or perceived or imposed, is the churning current of waiting. I have long been annoyed with gradualism, that urge to “be patient” and give oppressive forces time to adjust to demands for their cessation. I recall as an undergrad, in a car full of wonderful minds on our way to a philosophy conference, a colleague lionized the virtue of patience in the face of oppression. He cited, inevitably (though a bit inaccurately), the nonviolent civil disobedience of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as a paradigmatic example. But I grew enervated at the call for me to post up, respectfully, and twiddle my thumbs, respectfully, while tyrannical forces got their act together, not respectfully. “Power concedes nothing without demand,” Frederick Douglass says. And this call for patience, for gradualistic thinking, is echoed, I think, in respectability politics. Continue to unceasingly demonstrate your worth in highly regulated ways and eventually our time will come. But if “a change [ain’t] gonna come,” I am unwaveringly justified in being pissed off—and pissiness can look like some profane words, middle fingers, and broken windows. Lebron voices this sentiment for me:

If significant change does not come soon, there will be a point at which blacks will be justifiably fed up with the blood in the streets, bodies left in the sun, necks snapped in the vans. Then, a more radical politics that eschews past strategies may become necessary, whether tactically advantageous or not. Necessary because it secures for blacks a sense of self-respect and respect for each other precisely when other Americans or institutions seem uninterested.[16]

The Foucaultian madman, if continually, intellectually, socially, historically, and materially rebuffed, may quite literally become mad at some point. As Frantz Fanon later observed in his resignation letter from Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algiers, published in Toward the African Revolution: “Madness is one of the means man [sic] has of losing his [sic] freedom.” I wonder what happens if that freedom was never given in the first place? How is one to live if they are deemed unfit for existence? I continue, apparently, to vomit blind flies. And it grows sickening.

What is a madman, and other madpeople, to do when accosted with the tumultuous blight of demanded respectability—or else? I teeter between wishing to remain living, to survive, in order to continue to commit myself to revolutionary and subversive social justice politics, for if I content myself with death I cop out of the struggle; and refusing to concede to hegemonic constraints, which doing so would itself be a form of death. This is the delirious dilemma of one who is said to be, and who is in danger of becoming, mad. So, I choose life—joyous, boisterous, gritty, difficult life—by refusing, for that is what, to me, life is. It is the mantle of the Black radical tradition that I take up, that I cite, for my own validity to exist unperturbed by our demands of decorum. I cite a tradition of sabotage, that “practice of life, living, disruption, rupture, and imagined futures,” and deploy it as a means to “challenge the politics of respectability and…to break rather than reform the carceral system”—the carceral physical system, the carceral linguistic system, the carceral sartorial system, the carceral ontological system. This sabotage that I adorn as a prideful insignia contests those “high crimes against the flesh” and circulates in those dreams, those freedom dreams, those “dreams of meaningful life so vivid that they transcended bars and borders, altered lifescapes, and created relationships and realities.” As Sarah Haley writes, sabotage trafficks in “‘stayed woke dreams’ desirous of the dismantling of captivity and the production of new ways of knowing, and as such constituted part of a black radical tradition’s blueprint.”[17]

My contention is this: respectability hinges on the approval of those who inhabit discourses of power. And this quells anti-respectability’s ability to sidestep, bob-and-weave attempts to render nonnormative aesthetic performances—indeed, nonnormative modes of simply being—docile, demure, purged of its sullied debris toward a lovely proximity to purity. So I will end with Lebron, because I wish to turn the gaze back and critically glare at the root of what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call the “killing rhythm”: “we can turn our gaze in the morally urgent direction and ask whites, rather, where is your ‘politics of respect’ for our black lives? That is the only progressivism worth speaking of.”[18]


1. Baron, Alexander. The Lowlife. London: Black Spring, 2010. [↑]

2. Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Charles Barkley and the Plague of ‘Unintelligent’ Blacks.” The Atlantic, October 28, 2014.[↑]

3.  Lebron, Christopher. “I’m Fine How I Am.” Boston Review, September 25, 2015.[↑]

4.  Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Translated by John T. Goldthwait. 2nd Revised ed. edition. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 2004. [↑]

5.  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Lilly and Wait, 1832). [↑]

6.  Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, and Kimberly Foster. “Wrestling with Respectability in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter: A Dialogue.” For Harriet. For Harriet | Celebrating the Fullness of Black Womanhood, 2015. [↑]

7. Ibid. [↑]

8.  Barber, Daniel Colucciello. “The Creation of Non-Being.” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, no. 29 (2016). [↑]

9.  Kennedy, Randall. “Lifting as We Climb.” Harper’s Magazine, October 2015. [↑]

10.  Warren, Calvin. “Onticide: Afropessimism, Queer Theory, & Ethics.” Ill Will Editions, 2015. [↑]

11. Kennedy. “Lifting As We Climb.” [↑]

12.  Zyad, Hari. “5 Reasons I Refuse to Call Myself An ‘Ally’ – And Why I Use ‘Turncoat’ Instead.” Everyday Feminism, November 14, 2015. [↑]

13.  Smith, Mychal Denzel. Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education. New York: Nation Books, 2016. [↑]

14. Kennedy. “Lifting As We Climb.” [↑]

15. Lebron. “I’m Fine How I Am.” [↑]

16. Ibid. [↑]

17. See Haley, Sarah. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016. [↑]

18. Lebron. “I’m Fine How I Am.” [↑]

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Marquis Bey is a PhD candidate in Cornell University’s English department, focusing on Black Feminist Theorizing, Transgender Studies, Critical Theory, and Contemporary African American Literature. His scholarship has been published widely and ranges in scope from Black feminist atheism, criminalizing discourses of Blackness, the fugitive Blackness of Rachel Dolezal, the trans aesthetics of James Baldwin, and more. Additionally, his writing extends beyond the realm of academe and into more popular spaces like Those People, The Feminist Wire, Fembot, Ragqueen, and others. Find more of his work here:
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