To give oneself over to the protection of strangers must be a radically transformative, a liberating act. It would require, among other things, a concerted openness not to the possibility, but to the certainty of betrayal, as the very condition of...
To give oneself over to the protection of strangers must be a radically transformative, a liberating act. It would require, among other things, a concerted openness not to the possibility, but to the certainty of betrayal, as the very condition of solidarity.
This is the price of passage to the city of refuge.
In this journal, which I will also call City of Refuge, I will be exploring the evidence of such fugitive passages in the cultural traces of black and Filipino transpacific migrations over the course of the 20th century, which the scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, contemplating the Philippine-American War, once proclaimed the century of the color line. I hope, at least in part, to recover and reactivate their betrayed visions of a liberated future—what I will call lost Afro-Asian worlds. At the same time, I will ask, for myself and for you, how a reader must make herself over to receive these visions as the work of a living imagination—which is just another way of saying that every reader is always also learning how to read.
By reading, I mean something like what Colson Whitehead imagines, when he describes the awakening powers of Lila Mae, the protagonist of his novel The Intuitionist, by saying “she has learned how to read, like a slave does, one forbidden word at a time,” and I mean something like what the radical theorists Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “study,” a speculative practice and mode of being with others that opens and opens a broke and broken world. In the actual narratives of escapees from slavery, literacy is typically achieved under the certainty of repercussive violence, by impossible stratagem or divine agency. And then there is that other concept of reading, grounded in black spiritual traditions, that has most recently resurfaced in global pop consciousness via black drag culture, and I mean that too.
You can brush against the grain, like Walter Benjamin, or read upside down, like Stuart Hall, but reading is always something that must be done with others. This can be hard to understand if you idealize reading as a solitary practice, forgetting the very thing a child, or anyone who learns to read, first learns: that reading is what rescues solitude from isolation. And so I’ll be relying on you—if you are out there, if you are reading this—to help me find my way. For I will most certainly get lost all on my own.
Because this is a working blog, I’ll be fighting my own professional-academic habit of trying to anticipate every criticism—to be unafraid of errors, unashamed of gaps in knowledge, free with questions, and not too proud to make a plea for help. At times this writing will take the form of literary criticism, historical research, or pure speculation, but above all I hope it will become a kind of formal experiment in the social practice of reading.
Let me know what you think. All are invited. I’ll be here—set me straight, spin me around, or just let me know what’s on your mind.
Let me know where it takes you, if it takes you. Let me know if the words start skittering on the screen, and on the page; and let me know when they stop.
Let me know if you find something, in something I’ve written or something you’ve read, on the library’s “Special Collections” floor or the bottom of the fifth page of a Google search; in a box in the garage or under the bar or in the basement. My aunt Rea went looking and found this:
This journal is also called City of Refuge in honor of CA+T, the organization and the community of people who make it run, to whose generosity in hosting this project I am very much indebted. For those of us who have stood squinting at the institutions of culture, trying to catch a glimpse of another world beyond the edges of this one, CA+T is very much a place of refuge. But most proximately, I have titled this journal in reference to “The City of Refuge,” a 1925 short story about the betrayal of a migrant on the run from North Carolina to Harlem, King Solomon Gillis, by the brilliant physician and writer Rudolph Fisher.
So that seems an appropriate place to start. In the next installment, I’ll begin reading Fisher’s story, as a roundabout way of asking the question, what’s the difference between security and refuge? If you’re curious, the text is available here, but no advance familiarity is necessary. Come and read with me.
Photo Credits: Vincent T. Tajiri Estate