Boundless Conversations for Boundless Liberation: Review of Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness edited by King, Navarro, and Smith
Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness. Edited by Tiffany Lethabo King, Jenell Navarro, Andrea Smith. Duke University Press, 2020.
Note from the ARB editors, added May 30, 2021:
Since the publication of this piece, we have learned that one of Otherwise Worlds’ editors, Andrea Smith, has built her professional career around a false claim to a Cherokee identity, as detailed in a recent New York Times article and an earlier open letter from eight Indigenous women scholars. While this does not invalidate the worth of Otherwise Worlds or its contributors, we feel this is important context for our readers.
[W]e often assume that all of our communities will share similar strategies for liberation. In fact, however, our strategies often run into conflict…We then become complicit in oppressing and colonizing communities from other countries. Meanwhile, people from other countries often adopt the strategy of moving to the United States to advance economically, without considering their complicity in settling on the lands of indigenous peoples that are being colonized by the United States.
— Andrea Smith, “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology
In the quote above Andrea Smith draws our attention to two major facts: there is an assumption that the way the oppressor oppresses, and the process of oppressing, is uniform, and this leads people to assume that liberation and its practice must be universal. Smith argues that this is in fact not the case. Differing liberatory practices can, and I would argue will, lead not only to conflicts, but would-be liberators become complicit in fortifying oppressive structures. Andrea Smith wrote this in Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology. Recently, in the midst of increasing anti-Asian violence, one Asian American writer states:
Today, in reaction to the series of attacks on our elders, many enraged Asians are calling for the immediate arrest of the perpetrators of violence while demanding the most punitive charges be made. “Send a message,” they say. And I have to wonder, “Weren’t we just demanding we defund the police in solidarity with Black Lives Matter?”
After a year of realizing the deep intertwining of anti-Blackness and policing, we are seeing non-Black people, under attack, reaching for policing as a liberatory strategy. The conflict and complicity Smith addresses still fills the air five years after she wrote her article.
This past week I taught my students Andrea Smith’s 2016 article. I used the tensions between Asian American and Black people as an example. Students repeatedly asked, “well what can we do? We need to be safe, how can we not rely on the police?” Students were speaking out of fear, helplessness, and frustration. As I listened and reflected on my students’ responses, I kept thinking of a word that the editors of Otherwise Worlds repeatedly addressed: insurmountability. In the book, they write about how the conflicts between organizing for Native people and the liberation of Black people are often seen as insurmountable. The introduction states:
Thus, conference attendees and participants were able to recognize moments when Native political and intellectual thought centered land, nation, and sovereignty in ways that alienated and could potentially harm Black people. The dialogue that unfolded at the conference also brought to the surface instances in which Black critiques of Native sovereignty conflated Native understandings of the self, community, land, and self-determination with settler epistemologies and ontologies of being autonomy, and humanity. (7)
Here they reference the conference that birthed Otherwise Worlds, where Black Studies and Native Studies scholars came to discuss what liberation means for both fields, why their liberatory practices run into conflict, and how they can imagine and, most importantly, organize otherwise.
Despite insurmountable conflict between Native and Black studies being the point of tension of this book, each section of this book is labeled as “Boundless” something. For example, the first section is labeled “Boundless Bodies.” The term boundless forces the reader to pause because you wonder: would insurmountability be an issue if we were truly boundless, if we could become boundless? For example, in the recent tensions between Asian Americans and Black people, would there be tension if Asian Americans were not bound to anti-Black and carceral practices such as linking public safety and police? More generally, would any of our liberatory strategies run into conflict if we were not bound to capitalism, carcerality, and the ideologies of white supremacy? How do we unbind ourselves? How do we explode the bindings that occludes collective liberation?
In the first portion of the book, “Boundless Bodies,” Frank B. Wilderson III, author of Afropessimism and Red, White & Black, and Tiffany Lethabo King, who recently wrote The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies, engage in conversation to address the supposedly insurmountable tension between Native organizing and Black organizing. King lets readers know that this was a two part conversation. The first part was uncomfortable for King because she realized she was being “forced to contend with Wilderson’s change of mind and heart about the potential for the Native’s ‘grammar of suffering’ of genocide and the Black’s ‘grammar of suffering’ of fungibility to speak to one another.” Put differently, King was forced to realize that the practice of Native organizing, and the way it articulates itself, requires the suffering of Black people. It does so by using “sovereignty” and ownership of land as the definition of liberation. In Otherwise Worlds, Wilderson, along with Jared Sexton and Andrea Smith, problematize this stance as being fundamentally anti-Black. Wilderson, Sexton, and Smith state that sovereignty and ownership of land always presumes a hierarchy of being and a white-patriarchal understanding of property, ownership, and capital, all of which contribute to the ideologies that render Black people as non-Human.
King cut this conversation short to avoid this discomfort and tension, but she later reached out to Wilderson for a second discussion. The second conversation situates itself in this tension and continues the discussion. King and Wilderson have another enlightening conversation that offers no solutions, no prescriptive analysis on organizing for liberation, and causes the reader to have more questions than resolution. A sort of paradoxical boundlessness came in the moment King decided to continue the conversation past the tensions that came up at first. The paradoxical boundlessness is that, although the conversation did not find a resolution to the ways in which we are bound to insurmountable tensions, the conversation keeps moving, changing, adding on to itself despite the bindings—within the bindings. Perhaps more than the theories, perhaps even in spite of them, it is the practice of conversing, the creation of a relationship and connection with someone through these conversations that allows for the paradox of boundlessness to come to fruition.
Other chapters elaborate points discussed in Wilderson and King’s discussion, such as: recognizing that normative demands for land reclamation and sovereignty are anti-Black (Jared Sexton, Andrea Smith), complicating the assertion that Native people have a claim to the Man/Human project, as Sylvia Winter calls it, and putting to question their proximity and claim to whiteness (Andrea Smith, Maile Arvin), and the relationship between ontological categories and the lived experiences of Black and Indigenous people (Ashon Crawley, Denise Ferrira da Silva). Still other chapters offer creative ways to realize that impossible ways of being exist in the here and now (Jenell Navarro, Kimberly Robertson, Se’Mana Thompson, Lindsay Nixon, Rinaldo Walcott, and Chris Finley), and explore otherwise epistemologies in indigenous knowledges (Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Sandra Harvey, Hotvlkuce Harjo).
In the same article from Color of Violence that I reference earlier, Smith speculates what a collective liberation strategy can look like:
…our alliances would not be solely based on shared victimization, but where we are complicit in the victimization of others. These approaches might help us to develop resistance strategies that do not inadvertently keep the system in place for all of us, and keep all of us accountable. In all of these cases, we would check our aspirations against the aspirations of other communities to ensure that our model of liberation does not become the model of oppression for others.
When one of our communities is attacked we must not stop at a strategy that only benefits that one community; rather, we must pause and reflect on the ways in which this world primes us to be complicit in carcerality and the logics that uphold it. This strategy, similar to what Otherwise Worlds demonstrates, requires us to confront insurmountable tensions as the point to creatively imagine ourselves otherwise. This tension point is the paradoxical space of boundlessness. For non-Black people, as in the case of Asian Americans addressing anti-Asian violence, this means that we sit in the discomfort that our liberatory practices often require the suffering of Black people and the continuation of settler-colonialism and carcerality.
To that end, Smith and Sexton’s chapters state that collective liberation cannot come from re-owning land, reclaiming land, and/or sovereignty, because that does not equate to the liberation of Black people. In fact, it facilitates Black people’s subjugation. Smith and Sexton demonstrate how the logic that makes nature and earth into land, an object to be owned and sold (and therefore able to be reclaimed, and re-owned), is the same logic that rendered Black people as objects to be owned and sold, as fungible. Smith adds to this by stating “land” also disappears Native people from existing. Thus, Native people’s liberation cannot be reclaiming “land” or sovereignty, rather it is reimagining relationships to the earth entirely. Smith shows that Native Studies and Black Studies can find a common ground (pun not intended) when we realize that the creation of both “land” and fungible people are linked. Therefore, through the abolition of logics that render both people and earth as disposable objects, we can imagine collective liberation and reimagine our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the earth.
As the COVID-19 vaccines liberate some able-bodied people from quarantine, we must not be sidetracked. The goal isn’t individual, momentary liberation. We must continue to organize toward abolition, build coalition, and center relationality like the contributors to Otherwise Worlds suggest. We must realize that anti-Blackness, ableism, white supremacy, and Indigenous genocide all existed before the pandemic, and they will continue unless we abolish those structures. We must continue the work that will lead us to the world of collective liberation, a world that is, as Jared Sexton puts it, “the landless inhabitation of selfless existence.”
Sneha George (she/her) is a PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She also works with various community based organizations that center abolition, transformative justice and political education. As someone who roots herself in Black, Indigenous and women of color feminism, her academic and organizing work is committed to imagining ourselves and this place otherwise.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had no acquaintance prior to the author’s involvement with ARB. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Duke University Press.