The discursive time in which we find ourselves is particular but not unprecedented; in fact, the vitriolic sputtering of conservatives in response to the straw person of “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) is but the latest incarnation of ideo-warfare against the dispossessed. We should be clear: the recent attacks on Critical Race Theory are not exclusively—or even primarily—about CRT as a specific field of study. Some of the loudest in the anti-CRT lynch mob have demonstrated little to no understanding of CRT’s primary tenets and are entirely unapologetic in their declarative ignorance and dimwittedness. This (multiculturalist) white nationalist mobilization seems to have less to do with Critical Race Theory than it does with the fundamentalist impulse to raise Confederate statues rather than raze them.
The anti-CRT movement contributes to a rich history of right-wing reaction that periodically garners cooperation and participation from self-identified liberals. This movement signifies a much broader aspiration to incite a populist repression of critical thought—that is, to marginalize, defund and otherwise destroy the robust, dynamic fields of knowledge, research, art, curricula, and intellectual infrastructure that demystify, analyze, and potentially intervene on relations of power, dominance and oppressive violence. In this sense, the recent emergence of the anti-CRT front is nothing more or less than the curricular and administrative front of an increasingly militant, reactionary, antiblack and white supremacist counterinsurgency against forms of study, research, art, teaching, education, and knowledge-making that center the lifeworlds of those who are in perpetual states of revolt--that is, freedom and liberation struggle. In this sense, the current anti-CRT movement is continuous with decades—actually, centuries—of cultural, political, and intellectual repression waged by institutions (including foundations and think tanks), state/elected officials, and right-wing populist movements that seek to undermine and destroy freedom-seeking peoples’ infrastructures of thought and memory.
From challenges to global majority ways of knowing throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and first quarter of the twenty-first via bans on Black, Indigenous, and Ethnic Studies to the disavowal and attempted disappearance of thinkers and actors who expose the genocidal logics enacted against Palestinians, thought proves to be fertile and passionate terrain on which funders, policy makers, and education administrators wage protracted battles. Indeed, the University provides much of the weaponry, both in sheltering conservative and liberal architects and in its absorption and monetization of the sometimes imaginative knowledges of minoritized groups for the purposes of performing liberal inclusivity.
At the same time, I suspect the current skirmish reflects how the term “critical” may have already outlived its usefulness as a term of praxis, intellectual and pedagogical mobilization, and radical interruption/disruption/creationor.1 Navigating, suffering, surviving, confronting, attacking, and slowly-to-suddenly dying in the thick violence of the places and moments so many people (involuntarily) inhabit calls on scholars and teachers to resituate the critical act.
A threshold and diagnosis, critical embeds within it a citational redress in that it names a labor that entails a thoroughgoing knowledge; a commitment that is inevitably collective thanks to its attention to roots and routes, languages and cultures, thought and mobilizations that have lived before and amend, redact, and reorganize Us quietly, loudly, and otherwise. It is a technique of urgent care attuned to the lives and concerns of the submerged and disappeared. It tells no easy tales for the stakes are too high.
Left on its own, however, the critical act may be worse than an inadequate response to current and imminent waves of reaction and repression. What does it mean to do “critical” work in a moment when the academy, philanthropic foundations, government bodies, and even the U.S. military seek to absorb, reward, and repurpose such work in the service of corporate and university diversity mandates, imperial/colonial occupation, police reform (shorthand for police re-legitimation), neoliberal economic planning, and other processes that reproduce historical relations of domination and normalized violence?
Don’t get me twisted: critique, criticism, critical thought, critical analysis, and critical creativity are indispensable to radical, liberationist, abolitionist, insurgent collective movements in every historical condition that is defined by the wicked, coldblooded destructiveness of Civilization and its arrogant inheritors. The problem i am raising has to do with a critical short circuit, or perhaps a short circuiting that is created by the academic fetishization of its own “critical” labor. Following the late, great, singular Barbara Christian, the point should not be to fixate on critical insight as an end within itself, but rather to place critical thought in the service of the endless, unapologetic, world attacking imaginaries that constantly seek the end of things as they are, in the first instance, while eagerly, experimentally exemplifying the joyful, humble, vulnerable, militantly performed and defended capacity to embrace what Sylvia Wynter names the “praxis of human being” as the sustained insurgency of creativity and making that obsoletes Civilization’s tyranny.
Put another way, it is one thing to engage in critical work that rigorously identifies the origins, routes, historiographies, narratives, and weaponizations of misery and subjection that define a place and period; it is something else altogether to undertake such critical thought (and to read, learn, and teach it) as part of rigorous preparation and planning for convening insurrection against those who wish trans, incarcerated, Black, queer, Indigenous, colonized, and all other persistently counter- and anti-Civilizational peoples to be neutralized, liquidated, degraded, and/or demoralized.
This is the risk: not the vocabulary or the curriculum or the books but the totality of them—the ideas—as a method of unconfined living. If We are to imagine thought for use in dismantlement of and beyond the designs of racial capitalism, our labor at the scale of racial and legal code, practice, and paradigm must contend not only with those who are identifiably aligned with and benefit from the current order. It must also engage those who claim the mantle of our traditions and move in our name. This is the meaning of “critical” that is now and has always been feared: the reiterative, collective request that, at its best, is indistinguishable from joyful struggle; the allegiances wrestled with and fought for, negotiated and tuned-up by those who know that there are many things yet to (un)learn and in the knowing as practice is our liberated future.
To be more generous, maybe what i really want is a “critical” that amplifies the proliferation of consequences for anything or anyone that represses, expropriates, mocks, or otherwise obstructs the onset of liberated being for the occupied, incarcerated, displaced, enslaved, deracinated, and constantly destroyed. This may be, in other terms, an encouragement to sharpen and purpose the “critical” so it is weapon rather than objective, incitement to revolt rather than respectable discourse, and nothing more or less than an active premise for wild thriving toward horizons of carceral escape, Black freedom, queer beauty, anticolonial vigilance, and the kind of study/thought that i do with most of you in spite of these wretched day jobs, where bosses and co-workers so often attempt to commodify our critical intellectual labor at the same time they discipline and undermine it.
Beyond monopolistic knowledge production and the counterrevolution of diversity exists a sincere invitation into dense possibility; an indeterminate passage and rehearsal through which we come to understand and share in a dangerously incisive mutuality with the dual capacity to devastate and to dream.
A note on pronouns: In this essay, the co-writers make use of the lowercase “i” and the uppercase “Us/We” to honor and echo the political and epistemic work of Black radical, anticolonial, and other literary traditions that challenge the implied ascendancy and assumptive coherence of the first-person subject in communication. Exemplified by such revolutionary practitioners as Assata Shakur in Assata: an Autobiography (1987) (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2001), the “i” suggests a first-person identification that departs from canonical notions of the free-willing, self-determined, rational (white and Western) modern subject, and instead gestures toward the historical forces of subordination and degradation that form practices of “human being” and “identity” as confrontations with genocidal antiblack violence, racial colonialism, human chattel, and displacement. ↩