Seeing in the Dark: We Are Already Creating Joyful Futures in Real Time
From the Series: Art and Ethnographic Forms in Dark Times
From the Series: Art and Ethnographic Forms in Dark Times
I was writing this essay before I had words to speak it. We all have been. This is perhaps one of the most stubborn truths for those of us who are organizing in counter-purpose to the fatal logics of our current order. We know how to see in the dark.
For more than a decade now, I have been a partner to Women With A Vision (WWAV), a Black feminist collective in New Orleans. Our journey began during the disaster that post–Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts wrought for Black native New Orleanians. WWAV’s Executive Director Deon Haywood was leading the organization in mounting a policy fight against the surveillance and criminalization of street-based sex work as a strategy of forced removal after the storm. That campaign, like the founding of WWAV in 1989, rested on generations of work by southern Black women who came together to create more livable futures for themselves and their communities.
The now more than three decades during which WWAV has been living, working, and building otherwise are often called, as this series’ introduction suggests, “dark times.” This descriptor is shorthand for the gendered and racialized anti-Black terror that the WWAV community lives with and survives daily. But what are “dark times,” if we refuse to signify “dark” as “bad”? In asking this question, I am not trying to sidestep the eviscerating violence of our current order, but rather to challenge its coloring as dark. White supremacy is produced and reproduced through willed policies of death and exclusion that are far from dark: they are happening in plain sight and are operationalized through the glaring light of surveillance.
Surveillance, however, is never totalizing. “Dark times” might take shape against the violence of light. But they can also be times of growing, dwelling, and inciting transformation—in time, in space, in community. There is an art to being able to create worlds and shelter joy without being caught. Amid constant and lethal forms of surveillance and control, Black, Indigenous, queer, trans, womanist, feminist, and disabled communities have long built deeply and darkly enduring spaces of fugitivity for self-protection, state evasion, and the cultivation of more livable futures (Woods 1998; Browne 2015). This is the history through which WWAV’s founding vision came into focus and became actionable. In their hands, the freedom dreams of generations past took on new life and urgency.
By doing the work, the WWAV foremothers honed an analysis of our social world as persistently and radically connective (Gilmore 2002; McKittrick 2011). Their work materialized in the shadows, beyond the surveillance that willed the destruction of their communities. On their own front porches, their life-giving, creative labors could be sustained and protected. There, they gathered with their people, they laughed, they ate, they drank, they told stories, they made harm reduction packets for street outreach, they cared for their children, they cared for each other, they devised strategies for resourcing their communities, they shared histories that taught them how to refuse our current order’s fatal logics, they crafted worlds in which they could thrive, not just survive, and they lived into them every day.
In other words, they learned to see in the dark. They taught me to also. There was no manual for this work. We had to be in it—sitting and talking together on a southern front porch. Only then could we learn how to soften our eyes and inhabit our bodies differently, so that the glimmers of this world a-coming that were already around us could come into focus. Together, we could then feel and see the myriad, material ways in which WWAV built power in the dark—power that could be unfurled toward world-building ends, but that might, nonetheless, look to a surveilling eye like a jumble of futurism, pessimism, mutual aid, testimony, and service (Robinson 1983; Harney and Moten 2013). Put differently, the liberation that WWAV has built in the dark is not an abstract idea. It is not something that’s beyond, in another time far, far away. It is right here with us, in our hands, in our relationships. We can see it in the moments of care we offer, in the prophetic calls we are answering, in the mutual aid we are steadily making. These acts are not somehow separate from the change we seek. They are how we build it.
There is joy here. Abundant. It is joy that has been created in relationships, by doing the work—and also through rest and play claimed unapologetically. I have struggled, however, to commit the content of these durable joyful truths, these fleeting moments, to paper. To date, much of my writing with WWAV has focused on the purposeful anthropological complicity of “accompliceship.” This forum’s prompt has left me grappling with the (sometimes) inadvertent and treacherous complicity of shedding too much light on what has been carefully obscured.
Rendering something visible—bringing things “to light”—should raise questions for us all around the intentional illegibility or opacity that is sometimes essential for projects like WWAV to build otherwise. This forum also opens a different approach. Art is about making things. It is a creative process that is connected not only to the well-being of others, but also to our own. The goal of this essay is not to show you what WWAV sees in the dark, but to offer some practices of solidarity through which you might learn to do so yourself—to be in the dark, to adjust your eyes so you can see the possibilities already flickering around you, to join the people in your own corner of the world who already are creating joyful futures in real time, to make more and more still. There are those who might cynically retort that there is nothing to see here. We know better.
Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2002. “Fatal Couplings of Power and Difference: Notes on Racism and Geography.” Professional Geographer 54: 15–24.
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Minor Compositions.
McKittrick, Katherine. 2011. “On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place.” Social and Cultural Geography 12, no. 8: 947–63.
Robinson, Cedric J. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Woods, Clyde. 1998. Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. New York: Verso.