Cam: How does the title of your book (I really like it, by the way) get you into talking about blackness?
Khadijah: The title for the book [Black Peculiar] came as I was thinking about the way I was the only black person in a very white space. It's a hybrid of the "peculiar institution" reference to slavery, and the modern absurdity of racism. It's so strange and yet so ubiquitous, and the ridiculousness of it is what I tried to capture in the book.
Maybe we can talk about how really silly racism is at its core as a premise, how utterly dumb it is to treat people differently because of their skin color, even as we realize how very dangerous that ignorance is.
C: Oh, yes, I do know that feeling well. I really like that double resonance of "peculiar," I think it actually perfectly describes the way being a black person in a white space so easily slides from a feeling of profound awkwardness or ridiculousness into violence or at least the threat of it. What's so good about "peculiar" is that the awkwardness or ridiculousness comes to seem like the ghost of slavery—its affective resonances—that still informs the feeling of being a black person in this country.
Anyway, yes, racism is silly, and that is easy to lose sight of at times like this when the conversation is understandably very grave. But, I don't know, I also think one of the ways I've kept my sense of self-worth intact over the years is by learning to make micro-aggressions into jokes on whoever is perpetuating them. Like, when I was younger, I used to relish those moments of being able to catch my teachers in the act of thinking I wasn't smart or hardworking or whatever enough to be in honors classes.
The thing is, though, perhaps the premise of racism is ridiculous, but I think that part of what is so good about "peculiar" is that it also acknowledges that while that may be so, it's a ridiculousness that is really deeply rooted in American culture. That is, you and I and everyone recognize that on some level it's one big joke, but we still have a really really hard time coming up with different punchlines. I mean, for me, that's one of the important reasons to make art, to come up with different punchlines.
K: That's a good word, punchline. It makes me think of the 17th c. British puppet troupe Punch & Judy (adapted from the Italian commedia dell'arte puppet Pulcinella). Misogynistic and violent humor laced the act (he killed his own baby, beat and killed his wife, and brutalized animals in the early versions), yet people were endlessly entertained by it. Often it's characterized as subversive, but really it's just disturbing, especially when you consider many first encountered the act as children, and that the violence in it doesn't differ too much from that in the cartoons most of us grew up watching.
But to our point, I think a lot of Western culture is built upon the dehumanization of people who have no power – women, children, anyone who isn't a moneyed cis white male, really. I've been looking at movie posters a lot, and SO MANY armed white cis male heroes populate them. It's creepy when you think about it, and what about the white men who don't identify with that kind of behavior? It does everyone a disservice. It's a visual, a narrative, and a sociocultural conditioning that it's time to question. It's time for a new narrative, one that makes sense in a human way, to create a future that doesn't just accept what the past has fed it.
When Ferguson protesters say Shut it Down, it means shut it all down. Start over. Start from a place of true listening and seeing, not just contemporizing and reanimating the same old caricatures.
C: You're right, obviously, but also the pessimist who takes up most of the space inside me wants to chime in here and say that this is the oldest thing to notice, that things as they are depend on the dehumanization of just about everyone. One of the most persistent arguments against slavery, after all, was that it diminished the humanity of everyone involved.
So the call to Shut it Down resonates with the abolition movement insofar as it is a call to shut down a violent system that depends on the flattening of everyone's humanity. But without something specific like the institution of slavery to pin dehumanization on…oh dear, I'm starting to sound like my father. Let me try again. Of course that specific thing exists in the form of the prison industrial complex, but I guess I think there is something productive in the non-specificity of the "it" we're meant to be shutting down, in the demand that things be otherwise without knowing exactly what that might mean. But I also think that protest isn't going to produce new narratives, it demands them but does not produce them.
Which I guess brings me back to art. If it's true that in the moment of the shooting, both the black boy and the white police officer are inhabiting contemporary forms of old caricatures, it's because this is how each has learned to approach the other, because the caricatures have been, to some degree, internalized as self. That's what is so creepy about the movie posters you're talking about, at least for me. Evidence that some large number of people accept, at least partially, the caricature as humanity. And I guess resistance to that flattening impulse is why I've found poetry so useful—the self that emerges from a lyric is much more likely to be obviously conflicted, complex, split. Ok, I guess that's not true of a lot of the slam poetry I write, but that serves a different function I think, much more like the protest insofar as it's an insistence that I—this strange black queer trans boy—exist, despite everything.
Hm. Maybe this is my way of asking you why it is that you write, what poetry does for you.
K: It's kind of like the senator who said a woman's body can "shut down" a pregnancy in cases of rape, right? It could be harmful fiction to believe that we can shut it down. A Pollyanna dream, at the very least. And isn't that part of what it means to be black in America? To never relax into feeling like you might have rights that can be respected, another harmful fiction. It's to live in a constant state of fear and grief and anger and stress, if you think about it. But then don't think about it too long or you will be the one who shuts down. It's a very real catch-22, and is so infuriating when people say that Black people should get over it. It's like telling someone to get over something that is still happening. It's like telling a woman being beaten by her husband to get over it when just last night he punched her in the face and laughs when he promises to do it again. That is why so many people say fuck it, I'll do what I want anyway. On the negative side, that can be a self-destructive spiral. On the positive side, that mantra can mean I'll create anyway. I'll teach anyway. I'll love anyway. And I'll do it to the infinite power within my power. And that is beautiful.
I write for the usual reason poets give, because I have to; because if I don't I'll be miserable. I will shrink down under the weight of threatening silences. So I write. I make things. I do things in the writing community. It is life-giving. I have to do it. It's what I love. It makes me feel closest to myself, and there's also a connection with the reader that's very powerful and unknowable, in a way. I'm interested in mining those things and I never get bored.
Why do you write?
C: I also write for the usual reasons—for as long as I can remember I've felt very sad and strange, kind of at a haphazard angle to the world around me. At first writing was just a way of doing something with my sadness, because I sensed that otherwise I'd be done for. And now there's still some of that, but it's mostly unconscious. Writing is a habit, a mode of thought, the way I've learned to make sense of myself and my worlds.
I guess we should be wrapping up soon. Perhaps a good place to end is with the question you asked and that I think we've been talking around, but never explicitly: why did you agree to edit this feature?
K: I enthusiastically agreed to co-edit this feature in order to be of service to the public conversation. The haphazard feeling you describe, I think can actually be applied to the world the way it's constructed -- outdated mindsets out of whack with who we really are as our highest human selves. Not to get all woo-woo, but as Krishnamurthi said, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." It's sick to believe that the continued killings of black citizens every 28 hours are okay, that they are often responsible for their own deaths (?!), and that we should just be calm and light candles, shut up about it and "wait" for some kind of justice. I think writers often get things right because we can't help examining, thinking, questioning, remembering the larger meanings inside the tiniest details. Whatever I can do to consciously and conscientiously participate in that, I will.
C: Oh yes, certainly. Ever since coming into some kind of awareness of the social and the political, I've come to just understand that feeling of being strange or haphazard as the feeling of queerness and blackness. Yes, also, to all of your reasons for wanting to edit this feature. I've come to value being haphazard because, even though it doesn't feel "good," it has translated into a kind of creative intelligence, in me and in so may others. This feature seemed to me to be one way of collecting those kinds of intelligence in one place and around an issue that urgently needs their attention. Because, I think, the double bind you described earlier requires creativity if we want to even begin to imagine how it might be undone.