This Week in Books: Pain and Power

Protesters demonstrate the death of George Floyd at the Lincoln Memorial on June 9, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

In an essay about W.E.B. Du Bois’s apocalyptic short story “The Comet,” Saidiya Hartman pries at the edges of the plot; Du Bois, she writes, depicts black life in America as entailing a “wounded kinship” and “precarity” that results in what can seem like almost a “lack of feeling.” Summarizing the story’s bitter end, Hartman writes that Du Bois’s black survivors “are not able to live as others live, nor are their children. This rapport with death, this life-in-death, challenges any taken-for-granted aggrandizement of life and its distinction or separation from death.”

In an essay about the bordering-on-miraculous healing properties of wild lettuce, which transforms into a meditation on black pain, Harmony Holiday writes that challenging this enforced “lack of feeling” is a vital revolutionary project.

“…we outsource our pain…Black pain for sale as song, film, scream. Black people are the Western world’s Christ consciousness. We have been sacrificed, made sacred, so that the rest of the society can play dumb and numb and profane, enacting the sad fairy tale demanded of consumers under capitalism, wherein happiness and comfort are the apotheosis— rooted in the material, in accumulation of commodities and clout while the soul flails and atrophies….The supreme commodity here is numbness. From its vantage Blackness is cannibalized and treated as evil, pain, sorrow, exegesis.”

She exhorts her reader, again and again, to ask the question: “what hurts?”

“When we who have Black bodies learn to be ruthless with our testimony, to weaponize our honesty about what hurts, when we decide to live as if we do not deserve constant dull aches and pains and traumas and phantoms, when we stop being the willing unconscious scapegoats for all the brutalization this culture harnesses as fuel, the whole construct will crumble. And it will hurt, but we won’t be the ones doing all of the feeling, finally.”

Naming what hurts requires an expanded vocabulary; new tools for fighting power: “defund” instead of “reform.” In an essay ruminating on the Wounded Knee Massacre and the murder of George Floyd, Layli Long Soldier writes that once, when she was in pain, “without the words to define and make sense, there was no revelation, no epiphany, no shimmering thought to release me from the pain and let go.” She goes on to say that without words, she can always trust instinct: “[Instinct] is all I have sometimes and it is always, enough… Instinct tells me when danger is here, even when everyone tells me it is not.” Presenting fragments of the archival records of the Wounded Knee Massacre, she asks the reader to read carefully, to rely on their instinct. She asks, again, for us to reread the passages about the day of the massacre, to linger on certain turns of phrase. She writes,

…you may sense an old, yet very present energy when you read, “A herald cried out that the soldiers would take us to the agency and take good care of us.”

You may taste that present energy in, “They gave us rations of sugar, coffee, crackers and bacon.”

You may see it in, “While we were doing this, the soldiers guarded round our camp. Then they put Hotchkiss guns where the cemetery is now. There were so many guns all around us I could hardly sleep.”

Hear it in, “The guns seemed to get quiet. In the meantime, we moved to the north, and a child was asking for water […] there were wounded crying out.”

Feel it in, “It was very cold when the storm came on.”

This is instinct.

I felt a spike of this dreadful instinct when I read about protestors being kettled by police — surrounded and brutally beaten; and when I read again this week about Vincent Bevins new book The Jakarta Method, which is about the largely suppressed history of the global massacre of communists in the 60s and 70s. This kind of thing seems far away, but it is not. It is closer than I like to think. Find words for your pain that disarm power; but when words fail, trust your instincts.

1. “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance” by Saidiya Hartman, Bomb

Saidiya Hartman is the author of the lyrical and inventive Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (you can read an excerpt on Longreads). In Wayward Lives, Hartman seeks out the fragmentary bits of information available about the lives of black young women and girls living free and revolutionary lives in the second and third generations born after slavery; crucial to her story are several historical figures, including W.E.B. Du Bois. In this essay for Bomb, Hartman visits with Du Bois again, strolling through his short story “The Comet,” about a black man who finds himself the only survivor in a post-apocalyptic New York, and which is the penultimate chapter of Du Bois’s 1920 collection Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, “written after the pandemic of 1918, after the Red Summer of 1919, and in the context of colonial expansion and atrocity”; it is “an ur-text of afropessimism, but its mood is more tragic.”

2. “A Little Patch of Something” by Imani Perry, The Paris Review

Imani Perry, author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, reflects on the sustaining power of a small patch of earth. “Black people gave birth in the cane, died in the cotton, bled into the corn. But out of little patches of something, carefully tended to because beyond survival is love, came reward. The earth gave moments of pleasure: Latching onto a juicy peach—your teeth moving from yellow to red flesh. Digging up a yam, dusting off its dirt, roasting it so long the caramelized sweetness explodes under your tongue.”

3. “An Artist’s Guide to Herbs: Wild Lettuce” by Harmony Holiday, Bomb

While expounding on the remarkable and easily accessible healing properties of wild lettuce, poet Harmony Holiday, author of Hollywood Forever, returns over and over to the root of the problem: “what hurts?

“We need to learn how to notice pain before it becomes morbid and desperate and bitter and inconsolable. This will mean addressing generational pain too, not to roil in it like victims, but so that naming what hurts becomes as common as pretending nothing does. Naming pain means not being afraid of it, not running from it and allowing it to abuse and hunt us, it takes away its power over our imagination and makes us braver in our vulnerability, and more alive, because you can’t be completely present if you’re pretending to feel nothing…We need to know about the remedies that are so simple they seem unreal, because those are the ones that usually help break chronic cycles….”

4. “On Wounded Knee and the Murder of George Floyd” by Layli Long Soldier, Lit Hub

“This country, the structure—if it were a dinner table, I’d flip it,” writes poet Layli Long Soldier, author of Whereas, in this reflection on the Wounded Knee Massacre, ancient star maps of Minneapolis, family, and instinct. “I must do something, that elder-instinct says. But I don’t know what, I answer. Forgive me, elder, the only way out of my desperation is to write. And forgive me for the gaps in this essay, there’s so much I don’t know and much more to include. Though I believe the adage that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ I also believe that words are meager. For my paradoxes and contradictions, forgive me. But I empty my pockets—here are personal memories, something from our ancestors words and Lakota history, knowledge about this land, a nod to our modern-day AIM warriors, love for my daughter and family, mention of a pitiful love life, my experience as a woman—it’s all that I have. Even if it’s meager, I give it to Mr. Floyd, his family and anyone affected.”

5. “Policing Won’t Solve Our Problems” by Alex S. Vitale, The Paris Review

An excerpt from Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing, which has now been made available as a free ebook. “…reforms must be part of a larger vision that questions the basic role of police in society and asks whether coercive government action will bring more justice or less. Too many of the reforms under discussion today fail to do that; many further empower the police and expand their role. Community policing, body cameras, and increased money for training reinforce a false sense of police legitimacy and expand the reach of the police into communities and private lives. More money, more technology, and more power and influence will not reduce the burden or increase the justness of policing. Ending the War on Drugs, abolishing school police, ending broken-windows policing, developing robust mental health care, and creating low-income housing systems will do much more to reduce abusive policing.”

6. “The Spirit of St. Louis” by Elias Rodriques, Bookforum

Elias Rodriques reviews Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, which is both the story of white settler violence (a long history of “eviction and extraction”) in St. Louis as well as the city’s legacy of revolutionary resistance. “In the decades before the Civil War…the city’s proximity to Illinois and the states of the former Northwest Territory, all of which had outlawed slavery, made it the site of ‘low-intensity open war’ against enslaved and freed black people…The vanguard opposing slavery was a coalition of white immigrants and enslaved people. In St. Louis, the new Republican Party, founded on an antislavery though pro-settler platform in 1854, was radicalized by German immigrants arriving from Europe after supporting the 1848 anti-monarchist revolutions….When a Confederate militia gathered to seize St. Louis’s arsenal (the second largest in the nation), the Union army deployed several regiments, one led by Henry Boernstein, a publisher of Karl Marx….The coalition of the war years reemerged in the city’s 1877 general strike, when a railroad strike in the East set off work stoppages all across St. Louis. Black and white workers took over the city government and demanded an eight-hour workday and an end to child labor. Strikers reopened the flour mill to provide bread for the people. ‘It is wrong to call this a strike,’ complained the Missouri Republican, ‘it is a labor revolution.’ ”

7. “Where America Developed a Taste for State Violence” by Andre Pagliarini, The New Republic

Andre Pagliarini reviews Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method, about the vast global anti-communist massacres of the 1960s and 70s. I shared an excerpt of the book in the newsletter a couple weeks ago; this review gives an overview of the whole book, and really reinforces the horror of it all—both the scale of the massacres and the fact that Americans are almost entirely unaware of them. “By the early 1970s, the name of the Indonesian capital was being used as a chilling shorthand for political violence, painted on walls and typed in anonymous postcards to left-wing government officials and members of the Communist Party—‘Jakarta is coming,’ they proclaimed.”

8. “I Am a Willow Tree” by Can Xue, Lit Hub

A story from Can Xue’s latest collection in translation, I Live in the Slums. Can Xue is a pseudonym; the name, as I understand it, means something like “leftover snow,” which could mean either the dirty snow on the ground at the end of winter, or the snow that never melts on a mountain peak. The story, like many of Can Xue’s stories, is told from a non-human perspective: a willow tree trying to understand the arbitrary whims of authority. “The gardener’s face was expressionless. None of us could figure out what was going on in his mind. The grass, flowers, and shrubs all had a high opinion of this man. I was the only one whose views about him wavered. For example, one day when he was near me he suddenly brandished a hue and excavated. He dug deeper and deeper. With one blow, he chopped off part of my roots. I shook violently from the pain. Guess what he did next? He filled in the hole he had dug and evened it out, and then went elsewhere to dig. He often engaged in this puzzling excavation. Not only did he injure me, he also hurt other plants in the rose garden. The strange thing was that as far as I could tell, none of the other plants complained about him. Rather, they considered their injuries badges of glory. I heard all kinds of comments at night.”

Stay safe out there,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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