Rinaldo Walcott on Conjuring Black Funk
If it is possible to extend Audre Lorde and the interventions she has made into what is generally referred to as second-wave feminism and gay and lesbian liberation of the 1960s and after, Herukhuti has done so. His insights on culture, sexuality and spirituality are important signposts and ‘notes’ towards a more hopeful and emancipatory future. To make such a claim is not to mean that there is not much that one might quarrel with in the book, but it is to suggest that the ideas in the book require readers to account ethically for their political choices and decisions in ways that keep the politics of what it means to live a life fully in the world meaningful and resonant.
Conjuring Black Funk takes as its central thesis the author’s love of black people and that love for self and collectivity as the point from which to engage a range of limitations about what it means to live a life. If Eurocentrism of a particular kind has ordered the globe on its own terms, Herukhuti desires to provide readers with some lens through which not just a challenge but also an undoing of such Eurocentric ordering might occur. The argument poses a call to individual libratory desires and simultaneously does not fetishize individualism as the sine qua non of human experience and potentiality. Thus, conceptions of collectivity are crucial to the arguments concerning the libratory potential to be found in freely engaging one’s sexual desires, encountering and nourishing spiritualities of all kinds (it seems), and working towards a culture both at the macro and micro levels that allows for the expression of selves that do not do damage to others. The philosophical underpinnings of the work are admirable and require readers to dig deep to engage with what we want out of human life worlds. It is, however, in attempting to answer the above question that some of Herukhuti’s ‘notes’ leaves one desiring more extended discussion, insight and even example.
Herukhuti draws important correspondences between the prison industrial complex and ‘the HIV/AIDS industrial complex’. The correspondence appears appropriate, but one would like to see more detail in the implications of such relations given the evidence seems to suggest that in both instances Black communities, whether in the USA or elsewhere in the Western world, are disproportionately disadvantage by both complexes. I wondered if Herukhuti was pointing towards genocide or suggesting something less troubling? Similarly, I also wondered about the often not very well developed critique of capitalism. It seems to me that the kind of world (earth, or globe) that Herukhuti requires us to imagine is one in which capitalism as we know it would have no place and thus no future. While it is clear that Herukhuti agrees with such a claim, a lack of a sustained conversation makes the desire for other modes of a living a life and bringing it into being less satisfying to envision.
Significantly, Conjuring Black Funk is a text that defies genre. Its notes, which are conceptual, poetic and poetry, journalistic and argumentative, combine to demonstrate the power of thought when it is freed from convention. The text stands as a kind of ‘ethnography of the self’ as Herukhuti details personal encounters as the evidence to think out loud about how to make contemporary Black human life more livable. Such ethnography of the self reveals the influence of Samuel Delany, whose ability to make ‘straight talk meet street talk’ (the title of a Delany essay in part on truth telling and sexual practices in the time of the HIV pandemic), coupled with scholarly theoretical specificity, stands out as at least one model for engaging in the project that Herukhuti offers readers. Audre Lorde and a range of other Black and women of colour feminists offer other models as well. All these models combine in Herukhuti’s text to push the conversation along in ways that trouble, disturb, please, excite and require us to extend ourselves beyond where we were before we entered the pages of the text. Such an experience is not because what we encounter in the pages is new and, therefore, requires us to unravel some previous self. Instead, what we encounter in the pages are a particular ‘truth’ that we as readers have met before, but have not grappled with as an orienting practice for how to live in the world. It is being forced to grapple with truth that makes Conjuring black funk an extremely satisfying text.
Writing this review in late 2008 in the aftermath of the California Proposition 8 ‘No’ side defeat, makes Herukhuti’s insights more meaningful and timely. Proposition 8, and its now confirmed desire to prohibit same sex marriage, points to the complicated webs of politics, identity and the political, as both personal and importantly collective, as Herukhuti’s conjurings point to. The ‘No’ side’s defeat and the early attempts in the USA to blame the defeat on the homophobia of Black and Latino voters demonstrated that, despite years of coalitional politics and other ways of thinking and organizing around forms of multiple difference, the underlying soundtrack of human life is still based on a Eurocentric assumption. This assumption suggests that all the others must be brought on board for freedom’s cause, since they simply do not seem to get it. In the aftermath of the Proposition 8 ‘Yes’ win, the assumption was that Black queers just did not exist, and such visceral responses support the kinds of underlying claims of Herukhuti. However, such claims also demonstrate the work that still needs to be done to demonstrate that Black Diaspora peoples are also fully the inheritors of all of modernity’s complicated and contradictory gifts.
Finally, one might argue that a text like Conjuring Black Funk adds an important dimension to Black Diaspora intellectual debates. By this I mean to signal that, while since the 1970s Black intellectuals have become public figures in North America as spokesmen (yes men, since most of the women are made to disappear from such public conversations), the questions that Herukhuti pursues in Conjuring black funk remain far off the radar screen. Particularly, the relationship between Black Diaspora expressive cultures, sexuality and its many formulations and spirituality (as distinct from religion) and the tired references to the Black church have been given little space in defining Black existences and continued pleasures of life. Herukhuti combines those three elements to begin to invite us into a conversation, a dialogue and maybe even a debate about how to move forward. Even if his incitement to discourse is still US-centered (even New York-centered), it is nonetheless a more hopeful and possible incitement than many other provocations before it.
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto
# 2009, Rinaldo Walcott