Sent to See

Curator's Note

What does it mean to have been sent away?  And how is it similar and bound up with stepping away, specifically stepping away to see?

The Guyanese intellectual, feminist, and activist Andaiye writes of “those that we sacrificed into power.” 

And Amiri Baraka, in one of his late poems, speaks of “seeing something in the way of things.”

Both are talking about a separation, a distance, about there being no way home.  In Andaiye’s case, she is talking about being sent away from colonies and former colonies to study in the metropoles.  She is talking about the family, community, and national efforts that go into sending these future leaders, and the hopes that go with them.  She is also trying to understand the relationship between this sacrificing into power and the subsequent betrayal of those who did the sending by those who were sent.  And as someone who was sent, she is trying to find another way for her separation not to be the prelude to betrayal.  Is there another way after being sacrificed into power?

In Baraka’s poem he seems to be meditating on a kind of stepping back necessary to be a poet, at least in the way our societies are set up.  This stepping back to see something in the way of things is also a separation.  Moreover, it is one with a clear price.  And in the end, as he says, those he stepped away from see this something too.  Is there a value in what he does, he seems to be asking, one that was worth this stepping away, this separation?

Fred Moten and I have been thinking about these questions over the last couple of years, in one form or another, and with the guidance of Andaiye, Baraka, and others.  But we haven’t been thinking about it just in these more exceptional terms of leaders, whether of the Black Arts Movement or post-colonial states.  We’ve been thinking about us, about how we were sent away, and about what it means for us to claim we see something in the way of things.  And we haven’t just been thinking about us.  We’ve been thinking about everybody who has been sent away, and in our US context, about the end of affirmative action, the end of one mode of sending.  And we’ve been thinking about our students, the ones who want to be filmmakers and poets, the ones who will have to step back to see.

Once you step away, once you are sent, can you ever get back, back to what Clyde Woods called those blues universities where you learned everything?  What we are thinking about is different from the anti-blackness found in Hannah Arendt’s consideration of Little Rock.  It’s not the sacrifice.  It’s the power.  Or maybe better to say it is the separation itself, one that parents whose children were integrating school never contemplated.  There would be sacrifice but no separation, because as parent after parent testifies in oral histories of the civil rights movement there was no desire for their children to be with white people, only a desire for resources.

In any case, there are a lot of elements to a separation like the one that comes from being sent away, maybe especially through what was affirmative action.  One of them is loneliness.  Or a kind of augmented loneliness since all institutions are dedicated to loneliness insofar as their prime goal is individuation.  Another element is the compensation for this, and the awkwardness of that compensation, such as fashioning oneself as an activist intellectual, or social practice artist, or as someone who gives back.

Another challenge is to think of this without nostalgia and its inherent conservatism and eventual reaction.  But maybe what seems most important to us is the necessity of this separation to the production of politics and of art.  There is a reason the British ruling class spoke of their sons as being sent up to Oxford or Cambridge.  Separation and representation were crucial steps in the social relations of production that became racial capitalism.  Divide and rule was not and is not a political strategy but a description of society.

Art and politics, through the figures sent to see, are extracted from people in general, to facilitate this division and this rule.  We were those figures and maybe still are.  To put it bluntly, what if art and politics are the master’s tools?

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