Black Struggle Will Not Bring Interracial Catharsis—And It Shouldn’t
Emily Owens Sometimes Wonders Who the Signs Are For
For nine weeks, my neighbors took to the sidewalk every evening at 7 pm to bang drums and pots. Our neighborhood joined the practice that had started in New York and spread to other cities and blocks like mine in short order. The premise was a public thanks-giving: we would join together in support of healthcare workers and other people on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some evenings there were only a few of us, and others a joyful parade of children in pajamas and tired parents finding relief in connecting with other adults after long days at home. On rainy and cold evenings, we stood out in the rain: we would give thanks, standing in solidarity and in community. We were at our most raucous on surprise-warm nights, in what was an otherwise materially and metaphysically dreary spring. On those nights, we banged louder, tried to create a coordinated rhythm, we sang, and we lingered a bit when it was over.
The days wore into weeks, and the longest, coldest spring that anyone could remember started to show signs of melting into true spring, and finally, summer. As the days grew longer, so too did the capaciousness of the pot-banging exercise: if our ritual had begun in honor of healthcare workers, we also cheered when mail and delivery trucks drove through our nightly festival, and we took videos to show our far-away family members that community was possible despite quarantine. We had started off with pots and pans, but we brought out drums of all varieties, and kids blew on recorders and hit tiny rainbow xylophones, and moms dusted off guitars and blew trombones. When we saw one another during the day, we said “see you later, see you tonight!” with openness and certainty. We used the time to give thanks and also to check in with neighbors who had been furloughed, to chat about our budding gardens, to swap tips about not-too-crowded hiking spots and to share ideas about toddler crafts. We were banging pots against isolation.
It was my son’s favorite time of day, and one that my wife suspects will be his first clear memory.
It wasn’t a solemn affair, but a celebration of resilience and connection. There was no pressure. There was no shame. Sometimes we made it to the curb, and sometimes we did not. Sometimes the whole neighborhood was out, and sometimes just a few faces. Sometimes it seemed like everyone would forget, but then a few minutes after 7 pm someone would scramble out onto their front stoop with a drum, a pot, or a trombone, and play for a few minutes, carrying the torch. Keeping it going.
Our neighborhood represents a little sliver of queer suburbia: our lesbian household is flanked on three sides by queer and trans families with kids and/or dogs. We are a wealthy enclave in a city that has been hobbled by post-industrial poverty and the crisis-ordinary of opioid addiction. We hold less wealth than our neighbors in the city a few blocks to our south and we announce our Left politics through our family configurations (interracial, queer, blended), our job titles (university professor, charter school teacher, artist), and the guiding principles of our kids’ private schools (Montessori, Reggio Emilia, anti-racist, non-violent).
The joyful noise of pot-banging, then, was rooted in the foundational myths of suburbia: unspoken, exclusive, and nationally exceptional social security borne of accumulated wealth is in this place reimagined as accessible, inclusive, and ordinary through the pleasures of neighborliness and the guise of bare-minimum racial integration.
I am the only black adult on my block.
In this context it becomes possible to imagine banging pots as a charade: joyful expressions of gratitude offer relief in a broken world. Such expressions are more immediate than demands for living-wage compensation of workers, or a fundamental restructuring of American healthcare so that a virus did not have to become a national emergency. The project fulfills itself so swiftly: if the thanking is the task—rather than the amelioration of the conditions that produce the risk that require the thanks—then the thing that apparently needs doing is quickly accomplished. It is that efficiency that underwrites the pleasure, the catharsis of banging pots.I called out “nice banner!” and wondered why I’d said that, given that I was seething.
On the other hand, banging pots need not be understood as an empty gesture or an expression of liberal naiveté. In another frame, this practice is a deathbed confrontation with a broken state. This is our last resort. Why not give thanks in a moment when the structures simply are corrupt, and we must live through them? Perhaps the thanking suggests that we are already too far gone, and that the failure of the state has been so total that our only recourse is to give thanks to those who are left to pick up the pieces of a government evacuated of public ethic, which has offloaded nearly all of its responsibilities to private corporations and individuals.
The history of venerating military service is instructive here, given the use of “frontlines” to describe those deserving of thanks at this time. Imagining healthcare workers, postal and delivery workers, and gig-economy-bound people who delivered groceries and take-out as “frontliners,” we likened them to soldiers deployed in close combat. (It is also worth noting that people who continued to do in-home childcare to enable others labeled “essential” to go to work has remained hidden and largely escaped the labels “frontline” and “essential.”)
As Greg Grandin argues in his recent The End of the Myth, the 19th-century invention of military servants as an especially deserving class of citizens was simultaneous with a wildly unpopular imperialist war for which the state needed to save face. The romance of “the frontlines” has been a rhetorical balm that effectively shored up the consolidation and expansion of presidential power and the production of national virtue from the ashes of imperial land-grabs in the US-Mexican War, the Vietnam War, and the War on Terror. When in the context of the pandemic we lift up those who “put their lives on the line,” we reiterate a didactic lesson that provides cover for the failure of the state: this is not a time to critique the state, for people’s lives are meaningfully endangered as they bravely run toward the crisis. The virtue of individuals deserves honor, while the failure of the state fades from view.
Reopening began in my state, and we stopped banging our pots.
Or, reopening began in my state, and a week later we stopped banging our pots.
Or, protests against police brutality and racist street harassment rumbled through Minneapolis, and we stopped banging our pots.
Shortly after protests began in the Midwest, I was outside tending the garden with my son. I was, at that point, pretty determined to ignore the upsurge of conversation about our national pastime of hating and killing black people, for fear that toxic racial stress was killing me. My son was busy filling his small watering can and dousing our tomato plants. Across the way, my neighbor and their daughter were working on something. An hour later, I saw that their work had been a bed-sheet-sized banner that read BLACK LIVES MATTER in all caps that they hung from their porch. Shortly thereafter they hung another: END POLICE BRUTALITY.
I called out “nice banner!” and wondered why I’d said that, given that I was seething. They said they had extra supplies if I wanted some. I grimaced and quietly fantasized about cutting the word “brutality” off of their newly hung bedsheet. I worried a little that the ocean of anger that I carry was churning around those neighbors most publicly willing to identify with anti-racism.
The next day, in a deliberate attempt to hold off the national request to perform black grief for white eyes, I invited my sister over to tie-dye some t-shirts. We made a good mess and hung our colorful t-shirts to dry on the line in the backyard. I loved the way they flicked around in the wind. My son was so exuberant about the bursting colors that he insisted on wearing three shirts at once. We cocooned ourselves in our sunny yard and we ran around in the sunshine. Our joy or our mattering required no assertion, because it was implied. Our lives simply exist, here.
Another banner: IN THE FACE OF INJUSTICE, WHITE SILENCE IS COMPLICITY. Are they trolling me?
That sign is for you, my sister says. It’s facing your house.
The banners that hang across from my kitchen window are material symbols of a broader discursive trend.
In the days that followed a cop collapsing George Floyd’s windpipe with his knee, I received text messages that read “sending hugs” with only implied context from white friends I hadn’t otherwise heard from in a while. Every institution to which I belong sent a mass email that announced its disdain for racism and its commitment to healing and/or justice and/or anti-racism. Every single message used the term “countless.” (Might’n’t we count the dead, the buried, the murdered?)
These messages coalesce into a white genre. In this genre, gerunds pervade: “sending hugs,” “acknowledging the pain,” “honoring the loss.” Frequently, the gerunds combine in a two-clause phrase: “honoring the loss, sending hugs.” This genre is uncertain without being curious: the sender is “so sure” that you are hurting right now, even as she “can’t imagine” what black pain feels like. The genre attempts to be comprehensive without being specific: black deaths and white debt are always already countless and thus cannot be accounted for beyond the ellipses, the et cetera, the “named and the unnamed.”
The messages are well-meaning. They are the pleas of a community of people desperate to do right by us, who are tiptoeing through a minefield of social-media shaming and call-out-culture, who know they ought to say something but have also been told to listen, to “mute themselves” and to educate themselves. We have told them it is not our job to teach them, we have told them we are tired, we have told them they are microaggressive, we have told them to be careful. I suppose it’s a rather tight rope to walk.
Still, they want to engage with us. Still, they want to talk to us. They know they aren’t supposed to want this. So they send texts and emails laden with the hope that we will perform black suffering and survival, and that we will offer them succor at the bottomless font of black forgiveness and absolution. They end their messages with phrases like “no need to respond,” but this gesture of kindness nonetheless preempts and circumscribes the meaning of our silence. Whether or not we respond, their sent-and-received messages evidence the existence of black friends with whom they can consider themselves in conversation.
Like the banners across from my kitchen window, the messages push in. When I wake in the morning and brew some coffee, I first see the roses blooming; they have absolutely burst into bloom in these dark, mad days. I wonder if they are making fun of us. They are ridiculous in their beauty, their abundance, and their scent. Just above them in my line of sight are those four-foot letters: BLACK LIVES MATTER.
And so when I wake I smell coffee, I see roses, and I am, without preface or explanation. I also see the sign, and I learn that I matter. I recall, at once that I, of course, do not.
If a cop invades my home, or if I am killed at a traffic stop, or if a stray bullet catches me at a protest, or if my heart stops from stress and grief, I bet they’d raise that sign. This gives me no comfort at all.
What is the use of a sign?
Since its invention by black feminist organizers in 2013, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter has been amplified through the history of previous protest signs and symbols. Its various deployments invoke the multiple work that signs and symbols have done for protest movements past.
Early on, holding aloft a banner (or as likely wearing a t-shirt or a hoodie) that read “black lives matter” spoke the language of black refusal. As with the iconic “I AM A MAN” signs worn by protesters in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” worked through paradox. When members of the black working poor donned the phrase “I am a man,” their performance lambasted the notion that such a phrase could be taken for granted. If men claiming to be men might be too obvious to name, then the dissonance produced by their inhabiting that phrase threw into sharp relief the extent to which full masculine citizenship was (is) quite obviously denied to the black working poor. The statement pretends to be too obvious to need saying, and yet upon its iteration its necessity becomes apparent.
Early signage that pronounced “black lives matter” worked through a similar rhetorical mode. Unlike imperative statements like the old protest sign “don’t buy where you can’t work” or the more recent call to “defund the police,” the phrase “black lives matter” did not immediately signal an action step. Neither was this phrase specific or targeted, as in Kanye West’s famous declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Instead, the sign is powerful—jarring, even—because it highlights the simultaneity of distinct and mutually exclusive worlds: in (the speaker’s) reality, black people’s lives do matter, and in the contemporaneous (white supremacist) reality, they do not.
Yet if this project cites “I AM A MAN,” its rhetorical power is firmly rooted in its historical present. “Black Lives Matter” worked because it unmasked the face of white supremacy which, in 2013, was living high on the hog of colorblindness. White supremacy’s colorblind masquerade would render “black lives matter” excessive, uncivil, and rebellious without a cause: of course black lives matter, colorblind ideology would suggest, alongside all lives. Embracing the libel of excess, rage, defiance, and incivility, activists proclaiming “black lives matter” did not make a request, but rather issued a dare: perhaps predicting the response about “all lives,” black activists seemed to chuckle as colorblind liberals scrambled and flailed. The extent to which their simple statement of fact was received as a weapon made plain that colorblind racism regularly disposed of black people by, basically, avoiding the subject. To use Kimberle Crenshaw’s apt phrase, Black Lives Matter forced us to “see race again.”
But as years wore on and the regular executions of black people continued to be made episodically public, “Black Lives Matter” signage began to reference a different historical precedent. Scholars and activists saw connections between present-day police and vigilante shootings and the late 19th and early 20th century white habit of lynching black people and others imagined as undesirable. Within that context, the surges of national conversation and accompanying signage reiterated the rhythmic, stoic, flag-raising practice at the Harlem headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the early 20th century: “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.” Over almost a decade now, as “Black Lives Matter” signs rise in shop windows, on porches, at protests, and on buildings, they are also quietly taken down in peacetime. When they rise, we are reminded of the NAACP’s practice of annoucement and the way that naming violence can at least take away the power it accrues through secrecy.
Some signs don’t come down, though. “Black Lives Matter” signs that are small often stay in shop windows and living room windows in my region. This small-sign trend proliferated with the 2016 election, as they were pasted beside others that referenced the particular crises of that moment: facsimiles of Micah Bazant’s “Refugees and Immigrants are Welcome Here” placard, and or the poster that lists a bevy of identities followed by the message, “You are Safe Here.” Alongside those messages, the small and permanent “Black Lives Matter” sign invokes histories of fugitives and safe houses: like quilts, these are signs of subterfuge, and mercy, and sanctuary.
And now, as we round the bend into another election year, the BLM signs take on yet another meaning. In the context of the ubiquitous “in this household, we believe” lawn signs, which take the physical form of political campaign lawn signs, I begin to encounter declarations that black lives matter as adjacent to electoral politics for the first time. This most recent uprising has touched into the moderate political establishment in a way that strikes me as different than before: it seems that in order to remain even remotely credible, the state must respond through legislative promises and displays of solidarity that border on the absurd. But if these gestures threaten to enervate the radical breadth of BLM’s political horizon, they also recall a history in which black organizers understood the state as a relevant site for political change–think of Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1964 demand to be seated at the DNC, or Bobby Seale’s 1973 bid for Mayor of Oakland. The movement has gained momentum and is transparent, specific, and legible in multiple fora: a sign that “Black Lives Matter,” can be understood as a metonym for a platform that includes prison abolition, defunding and defanging the police, health equity, and voter registration.
Signs are visual markers that convey messages. They are silent and they are graphic. Pots and pans and drums are different: they don’t speak any words explicitly, but they make a lot of noise.
The last time anyone banged a pot on my street in the evening was May 29.
We stopped banging our pots when it seemed that the crisis that had been our raison d’être had begun to recede. Our state had flattened the curve, and was beginning to reopen.
But that timing is so suspicious: indeed, when our curve had flattened weeks earlier, we had continued to gather, tentative in the face of fragile and new success. We continued to bang our pots weeks into the official reopening, because we were still mostly all at home, and anyway it was warm outside. We were “in this together, six feet apart,” which is also to say, we willfully embraced the fantasy that COVID-19 is a common enemy even as we watched it ravage communities along predictable racial and socio-economic lines, highlighting structural racism as, Tricia Rose argues, the relevant underlying condition. When our pot-banging came to an end, it was clear that like the fictive end of the AIDS epidemic, we were ready to flatten the racial realities of this epidemic in service of taking relief in the flattened curve.
But it is so hard to ignore the simultaneity of raised signs and quieted pots. We stopped banging pots in the last week of May, during the literal same days of the Minneapolis Uprising. No one wanted to dance in the street in the midst of a race war. Racism was not a common enemy that we would face together with joy and certitude. COVID-19 was novel, racism was archaic. COVID-19 could be imagined as universal, racism was specific. COVID-19 was finite, racism was intractable.
The presumption—production—of a crisis as fundamentally shared meant that joining was not only possible, but joyful. That shared crisis was insistently public, and our noise making shouted our loss and our collective resilience to one another; it was mirrored by our ability to shout platitudes about getting through crazy times from one sidewalk to the other. Now, words speak only graphically, muting actual conversation. Now, my neighbors hardly meet my eyes. Now, our conversations are hushed, private. When we speak, my neighbors ask how we are and I say “the roses are putting on a show,” or “better now, the weather helps.” I do not want to grieve in public, I do not want to perform black pain so that they can perform white empathy. I think they know this. They invite more dialogue, answering my cheerful salutations with vague and heavily pregnant gestures to “the state of the world.”
In the absence of pot-banging and the presence of signage, we say less. We didn’t talk across the street about the largest protest our state had seen in recent memory, which met at the State House and which many of us attended.
No one mentioned the helicopters we all heard circling overhead after dark.
In daylight, no one discussed the two white neighbors loudly shouting at one another one night, one blaming the other for flaunting his whiteness by holding a gathering in defiance the statewide curfew order, the other saying plainly “the curfew isn’t meant for us.” I was so angry that night that I called the cops on the guy and his gathered flock of white retirees, but it rained, so they all had scattered by the time the patrol car rolled through. I knew I was biting off my nose to spite my face, welcoming the known danger of a cop car into my otherwise under-surveilled neighborhood. Revenge is not sweeter than safety, but it is more seductive.
We never talked about that.
Our not-talking is careful and cautious. It is quiet. We do not hold vigil, now. No one is celebrating resilience, now. No one is joining. No children are encouraged to parade in their pajamas for this kind of loss. What kinds of grief are public? Which losses can we feel in community?
Pot-banging was a capacious project that grew and stretched to connect us through the loss of life as we knew it, but its premise included the certainty that we would someday stop banging our pots. We know that COVID-19, even if it goes on for a while, will end. We are not only hopeful, we are certain. And so pot-banging meets its limit at black loss: if we mobilized our pots and pans and drums to stare racism and its many losses in the face, under what conditions might we be able to stop? Who would we thank, who would we imagine as our “frontliners”?
Our state will not shut down and then reopen when racism has been contained enough to be safe. There will be no vaccine after which we can celebrate and return to life. Without concrete relief in sight, pot-banging can’t work—there is no interracial catharsis in black struggle, no particular relief.
And so we stopped banging our pots.