This essay represents the Closing Remarks for the Opening Session of the 2017 National Communication Association annual convention. It attempts to make usable the profound thoughts and rhetoric experienced in a session of performative pleasure and protest.
On 16 November 2017, I was a witness to an Opening Session at the National Communication Association (NCA) unlike any I had witnessed in my almost twenty-year affiliation. This opening of the 103rd annual convention, titled “Engaging the Verbs of Social Justice as We Trace Our Legacies and Our Relevance,” was a scene of sheer performative beauty, a politics and poetics—born of embodied experience, between and betwixt life and death—reflective of our present field of discourse. In this space, filled with bodies of pronounced difference, we heard folks doing what Javon Johnson has theorized as “killing poetry,” a use of poetry that always understands “death is the beginning of another possibility and something beyond rather than an end.”1 So this was the beginning, an invocation for the conversation NCA and other fields have yet to have. For me, it is the admission of the Muñozian queer space, “the not yet here, but foreseeably on the horizon.”2 These poems and performances were just pivot points, jump offs, clarifications, and gestures toward something beyond what we have been given as hermeneutic choices. We were an audience to the beginnings of a necessary dialogue, offering new heuristic devices for understanding Black and queer lives, a challenge to years of following the canon that inadvertently (and sometimes intentionally) denied certain bodies’ inclusion.
What follows is my response to these performances, which borrows from the renderings of the night, extends analysis beyond what was given, and presents some ponderings for the broader field of communication studies.
As a good performer–scholar does, I take my cue from Ed Mabrey, as his poem took up a question that I believe all the performed poems wrestled with: What do we do when the canon is no longer enough? How do we continue to play classical music when the utility of the instrument has expired, or when the instrument continues cycles of violence that make music for some and noise for others, but produce the symphony of sickness nonetheless?
What does it mean to funk it up, rather than do what is classic, classical, of the lineage? What does it mean to not ask the same questions? After all, didn't we already make these arguments?
For what we have yet to reckon with, or what wrecks us all up, is that we have 103 rituals of violence, which we still do not know how to eradicate. We have 103 remnants of community, for which we have yet to realize their radical relevance.
If it were solved, then we would not still be explaining the need for “thuggified diversity” in a sea of passive whiteness. If it were solved, we would not find ourselves year after year meeting in problematic scenes—where nobody said a thing—to find our discursive underwear in a bunch as we land in spaces that have always been representations of theft, brutality, antiBlackness, antiqueerness, misogyny, and prototypical processes of reproduction (Texas). If we had realized radical relevance, which would be essentially anti-legacy, then we would not be offended by suggestions that we have not shown evidence of moving beyond it. Instead, we would be examining the interior of the intercultural collaborations that are not happening at the scene of communication; the absence of practicing the exact theories we say we advance.
If we were listening, if we had been listening, then we would know the difference between the minority and the majority; one carefully remembers, the other carefully forgets. Choosing the right methodology is an important task for fixing legacy issues. Working on this may be the first step in moving poetry to poesis.
But if my memory serves me correctly, then we have been here before. On the ships, after the ships, from Martin to Malcolm to Barack, and here we are again. And the relevant question for us, at the margins, marginalized, made monstrous, is “Where do we take flight?” To take flight means to forget the weight of white supremacy and its attendants. To seek freedom beyond the poetic proselytizing of the human liberal project. To abandon the pursuit of human validation, liberal affirmation, or investment in proving ourselves as not monstrous. To take flight while being monstrous, while being the enigmatic subject who many will never understand.
In the tradition of this project, I ask, “What of a world where we do not revere the human, that normative embodiment of the protocol or prosthetics we have come to require for kinship?” What does a monstrous legacy look like, where we remove citizen-human-subject imperatives and opt for non-citizen-thug-monster-object imperatives? After all, this is what we are. There will never come a time when Black and Brown and queer bodies are normalized. Yet, we can hope for a time when the white whip does not cut the hair, white guns do not kill the Black body, white slaves to supremacy do not capture the free, and antiBlackness does not continue to create the dead. There will never come a time when the most relevant body will not be cis and gendered normatively. Yet, we can hope for a time when the commitments to practice proper pitches of gender is continuously challenged as not an abnormal process, but the actual processing of making and (un)doing gender.
Why should we have to whistle Vivaldi when, as Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us, “respectability will not save” us and when “signaling that we are not dangerous or violent or criminal, we are mostly assuaging the cognitive stress caused by constant management of social situations”?!3 Why? When nigga-anthems have been holding us up, when gospel riffs have kept us elevated, when Sun Ra has given us the sun that doesn't beat our backs, but makes us brave. Why should we pursue the human, when the human seems so sick? Why can't they see the dis-ease in their own eyes? Those who carve this legacy as great and worthy of celebration, stop.
Here, in these poetic and prophetic fields, we are being asked to come back from our temporal bliss. To have radical relevance. This often means no pat on the back by those who look, think, and feel like you. It means a deep encounter with the arguments, an intercultural tension, a contaminating confrontation, a ghettoized discipline, a thuggified diversity, integrated in every unit of this institution—a stench of Blackness and Brownness that does not smell like Sweetie Pie's fried chicken or Chipotle. A radical relevance may mean new rhetoric, new questions, and new terrain upon which you are standing quietly and not always talking. It may mean new dispensation and dispositions; you may move from expert to the learner–listener. It may mean moving from the office into the face of obstruction and objection. It may mean new legacy, where dialectical tension is not a bad word—where monstrous intimacy might be better stated as an engagement with the “other” in a way that forces you to know yourself and all of its/it's ugly. After this, certain questions are no longer relevant or necessary. It is a rigorous time. A time beyond what we have come to know. A time that can start today.