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Keeping Tabs: Alternative Futures and Troubled Histories

Black History Month, the value of remembering, and the often silent heroism of existence.


Happy Black History Month! This week, we ask how we might reconcile histories of trauma with our present moment, and interrogate the value of speculation, observation, and stillness within ideologies that seek to efface the value of remembering.

George Schuyler: An Afrofuturist Before His Time by Danzy Senna

In this critical essay, Danzy Senna ruminates on the complicated figure of George Schuyler, author of Black No More. Arguing against academics of African American studies who dismiss Schuyler in his totality due to the notoriety of his assimilationist politics, Senna offers us a re-reading of Schuyler’s work in our contemporaneous culture war.

Rereading Black No More so many years later, in the era of Trump and Rachel Dolezal, Beyoncé’s “Formation” and that radical Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner, of the rise and fall of Tiger Woods’s land of Cablinasia, and of Michael Jackson’s “race lift” and subsequent death, Schuyler’s wild, misanthropic, take-no-prisoners satire of American life seems more relevant than ever…

There is no stable ground to stand on in Black No More. Its irony and merciless satire steadfastly resist the anthropological gaze of the reader. It is a novel in whiteface. And while black literature is almost always read as either autobiography or sociology, Schuyler’s work can be read as neither. It is one of the earliest examples of black speculative fiction. Black No More resists the push toward preaching and the urge toward looking backward into history. Afrofuturist before such a term existed, it insists, instead, on peering forward into what could come to be.

You Are on Display: An Interview with Morgan Parker by Alex Dueben

Next up we present Morgan Parker (author of the much-celebrated There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé), who is featured in the current Winter issue of the Paris Review. Over the course of the interview, Parker offers us insights into the productive nature of traumatic history and the importance of personal narratives in creating collective histories.

That’s one thing I’m obsessed with, especially in talking about black womanhood. I was talking to a friend earlier about how I really experience all time periods—the past, the present, the future—on the same plane in some way. I think “echo” is a good way to describe it. There are so many experiences we have that someone has had before and someone will have again. I am hyperaware of patterns and repetition in society. The way that history repeats and rewrites. It’s a way of connecting with other people who are here, and also with people who are no longer here.

Being a black American, it’s easy to explain in terms of trauma. You’re aware that you’re not the first person feeling and experiencing the thing that’s happening, whether it’s violence or discrimination or exploitation. I think there’s a lot to explore there and I think that there’s a lot to talk about being connected to that history. Our conception of history and its relation to the present is always shifting.

The Steady Gaze of Abbas Kiarostami by Josephine Livingstone

Iranian cinema has long been the primary archive through which we have both imagined and appreciated the Islamic republic. In this review of Kiarostami’s final (and notably unfinished) film, Livingstone asks us to consider the value of the quotidian within grand narratives that ultimately flatten our understandings of lived realities beyond our own.

His final film consists of 24 clips of roughly four and a half minutes each. Frame 1—each are numbered and announced with a title card—begins by reproducing Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (1565). Then the scene starts to move. Nothing happens, exactly, but the snow, which once was still, begins to fall. A dog scampers. The sounds of the scene start to multiply. The people, however, do not start walking—the painting is only half-animated. But there’s life there.

Kiarostami began this project with one key idea: a painting only captures a split second of time. But what if a painting were digitally altered to suggest a small interval of time beyond the moment fixed on the canvas? From there, 24 Frames developed into an investigation of the relationship between Kiarostami the filmmaker and Kiarostami the photographer, between one who makes images move and another who fixes the moving world into frames. In his final film, Kiarostami has staked out a gorgeously wild space in between.

The Making Of A Hindutva Warrior by Snigdha Poonam

In this excerpt from her latest book Dreamers, Snigdha Poonam takes a close look at the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia and sectarian communalism in India. Poonam retains an attentiveness to the role of right-wing Internet subcultures in India while examining the close imbrications between right-wing nationalism and misogyny.

Arjun Kumar is what think pieces explaining the Trump and Brexit verdicts term a loser of globalization, one of the millions of leftover youths whose anger is transforming world politics. It’s like the world swept past him while he was arranging chairs in the Bajrang Dal office.

Kumar is not sure he will find a job he’d like or find a girl who’d like him. On an elemental level, he doesn’t know if he matters to the world. There’s only one way left for him to make that happen: punish everyone who’s moved ahead of him in that queue.

Civilizations in Crisis: Chinese Speculative Fiction by Darren Huang

In a volatile and anxious political climate, Darren Huang introduces us to Chinese authors of speculative fiction in which the symbolic order of the Chinese state is challenged through the art of writing that lives in the liminal space of the real and the fictional, between the spaces of a material reality and an imagined future. Yet the questions they ask speak to universal concerns over individual agency, sovereignty, and the silent heroism of existence.

In China, the state presides over most of the publishing houses, so when writers want to explore forbidden ideas about progress, humanity, and the balance between individuality and the greater good, it’s often safer to package them in the guise of speculative fiction. Still, the authors’ critiques of contemporary Chinese society are not hard to discern, as these books ask pointed questions: Is giving up spiritual life and individual will in the name of “progress” worth the benefits to society? Is the distortion of truth and the revision of history justifiable if it promotes peace and unity? And is the quest for progress just a delusion?

Bitter Harvest by A. V. Krebs

Japanese internment in the popular imagination has always been understood as an enterprise borne simply out of racism and white supremacy. This 1992 piece by Krebs responds to that assumption by offering us an agro-historical account of the how and why. Situating the case of Japanese internment within larger economic anxieties surrounding California’s agribusiness, Krebs offers a fuller account of the origins of Japanese internment, with particular regard for how the logics of white supremacy and capitalism worked in tandem to produce one of the largest human rights violations in 20th century America.

But despite the nisei farmers’ importance, the federal dragnet that swept up Japanese-American citizens also gathered in their highly productive lands. Farm Security Administration (FSA) records indicate that 6,664 pieces of nisei agricultural property, totaling 258,000 acres, were involved in the evacuation process and placed under the agency’s jurisdiction.

Much of the evidence pointing to an agricultural land-grab comes from a 1975 study done by Richard Johnson of California’s Davis Research Group, a public-interest collective affiliated with the California Citizen Action Group Charitable Trust, and others. Additional evidence has been in the public record virtually from the beginning. The story is grim.

Yellow Power: The Formation of Asian-American Nationalism in the Age of Black Power, 1966-1975 by Jeffrey Ogbar

As we trace our histories of resistance as cartographies toward a more just world, we must look back on the influence from Black Power on Asian American movements in the 60s and 70s.

At the center of this [New Left] movement was the black power movement, providing the earliest examples of cultural nationalism and political organization around ethnic nationalist causes. The Black Panther Party served as a paradigm of radical ethnic nationalism and a vanguard party for the revolutionary nationalist movement. The Panthers provided an appeal that was unprecedented in the annals of radical struggle. For young Asian-American militants, the Panthers offered a model that was inspirational, encouraging, and also a lesson in success and error.