If Not Now, When?

Maša Mrovlje, Visiting Fellow at CRITIQUE, interviews Alex Zamalin on his book Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Columbia University Press, 2019)

MM: Black Utopia: traces the hitherto neglected transformative possibilities of black utopian thinking and outlines how it can invigorate the politics of critique and resistance in the current political moment. The book is particularly relevant given the widespread disenchantment and left-melancholia plaguing contemporary democracies. Why do you think it was important to write this book now?

AZ: I wrote the book with the aim to revive the idea of utopia, which, I think has been abandoned. The election of Trump and the rise of right-wing authoritarian, racist regimes across the world seemed to suggest for many that transformative thinking seemed to be in the rear-view mirror; that the only thing that mattered was to preserve whatever little was left of the liberal democratic system that had been in place since 1945. There seemed to be this desire to abandon utopia, or to simply focus on questions of liberal procedure, or to support fair elections, and a free media. In my view, this position is misguided because it concedes the terms of political debate and imagination to reactionary forces. Once we begin to only think about what’s possible from within conditions of radical constraint (neoliberalism, authoritarianism, deregulation, racism, sexism) we are no longer constructing a language of the future – which, after all, is the language that all social, cultural and political movements are concerned with seizing. The reason I turned my attention to black utopia in particular is because black thinkers have been at the forefront of not simply asking the question – what does a world without racism or white supremacy look like? – but because they dared to question the core values of modernity – capitalism, reason, progress, individualism, objectification. To me, following them as they tried to make sense of these values helped clarify how to think about liberation in the future.

MM: Your exploration of black utopia covers a wide range of sources, from the black nationalism of Martin Delany to the turn-of-the-century black literary utopianism, from the ambivalent emancipatory visions of W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright to satirical writing of George Schuyler, from the science fiction of Samuel Delany and Octavia Bulter to Sun Ra’s avant-garde cosmology. What guided your selection of sources?

AZ: Every book-length project requires the author to tell a story, which feels coherent and intellectually honest. There were so many other texts and movements I could have engaged – black socialists, the Black Arts Movement, and black intentional communities – but I was trying to paint a picture of the figures I believed were most directly and seriously confronting the very question of utopia in their texts. In addition, I was mining what I felt offered the richest space for political-theoretical reflections, which can be of use today. Further, given my interest in tracking the development of utopian and antiutopian texts over time, I wanted to give something of a snapshot of how utopian thinking responded to the particular historical developments of a moment.

MM: The history of the struggle for black liberation has been characterised as a series of bitter disappointments, where moments of optimism and hope about the possibility of racial equality would be followed by a sense of profound failure and loss. What is the place of disappointment, loss and failure in black utopia? How would you describe the uniqueness of hope articulated in black utopian writing, its distinctiveness in relation to other utopian writing in the Western tradition of political thought?

AZ: One of the core arguments of the book is that black utopian thinkers are keenly aware of the contradictions inherent in utopia, but want to posit the concept nonetheless as a guide to orient oneself in the chaos of the present. To me, this kind of hope is bound by a sense of tragedy or even impossibility, which means it is a hope that is also sometimes defined by irony and satire. Although it’s hard to come up with an analytically clear definition of what we mean by black utopian hope, we can say it is opposed to the romantic visions we see in Euromodern thought – think Rousseau, Diderot, More – in which there is painless resolution, a sense of absolute abundance, the triumph of reason and order, and so on. To me, the black utopian position on utopia is the one that is worth preserving in the here and now because it is more self-critical, which means it is less likely to devolve into the kind of moral absolutism or totalitarianism that is often associated with the excesses and dangers of utopia, which morphs into dystopia.  

MM: Black utopian and antiutopian writers articulated powerful critiques of linear visions of progress and put forth alternative notions of political time and history. For instance, Schuyler’s satires play with the idea of “eternal recurrence,” Butler’s dystopian novels centre on the trope of time travel to upend liberal narratives of racial progress, and Samuel Delany imagines a time of “hetero-topia” as an alternative to the utopia/dystopia binary. How do you think these alternative notions of political time rethink, challenge or refine our ideas of political action and meaningful political engagement?

AZ: No matter how much we deny it, there’s a strong temptation to think about political action and engagement from some anchoring place – even talk of “meaningful” engagement is a kind of anchor that feels like a precondition to think about “serious” action or political science. What we learn from black utopian and antiutopian thinkers is that, sometimes, the very anchoring place emerges only after the moment – I think of Du Bois and his thinking of interracial democracy and intimacy in “The Comet” or Butler’s system of spirituality she calls Earthseed – where solidarity is both ephemeral, untimely, and is only known after the event in question. The contours of what the community or space of resistance is comes only after action, and all its complexities. I think one lesson, in other words, is that action comes before essence, and that political action is nonetheless possible even as the debate about what it means and what it looks like is still happening.

MM: Your analysis engages with several women writers, including Frances Harper, Pauline Hopkins and Octavia Butler, in whose thought the fight for the end of racial injustice is inextricably linked to the struggle for women’s equality. Could we speak of a tradition of black feminist utopianism in its own right, and how are we to think about the relationship between the struggle for racial justice and women’s equality in black utopian writing?

AZ: Gender is a crucial part of black reflections on utopia, as it concerns the very makeup of a future community and its various contours. Black feminist utopian thinkers like Harper, Hopkins and Butler push the tradition to acknowledge some of its more unreconstructed male-centered, if not masculinist, dimensions, and to replace them with something different. At the same time, given their deep understanding of intersectionality, these theorists are able to theorize much more powerfully dimensions of political life – the family, reproductive rights, the body – as they are connected not only to gender but to the state and organizing narratives of political rule like justice, equality and freedom. To me, this ability to make gender and race together the lens through which to imagine what political theory is and what it shouldn’t be is one of the most lasting-contributions of black feminist utopian thought, and one we can draw important lessons from today.

MM: Can we understand the current protests against systemic racism and police brutality as new, material manifestations of black utopianism – a new black utopia in the making, so to speak?

AZ: It really depends. BLM was started in 2012 by three queer black women as a protest not simply against police brutality, mass incarceration and the denigration of the normative value of black life, but of capitalism, instrumentalism, sexism and homophobia. In this way, from the beginning, it was intersectional and focused on human liberation – and this point is crucial. Why? Because to the extent “Black Lives Matter” becomes a term to signify black people need equal opportunity, the anticapitalist and systemic, truly utopian social possibilities become lost – and brands like Nike, Target, Sephora, Amazon, Apple utilize it – we come full circle to the “eternal reccurrence’ you spoke of earlier. Just like King’s radical legacy calling for socioeconomic justice with the Poor People’s Campaign was erased and his talk of equal opportunity co-opted by the right and the moderate liberals in the 1980s, it’s easy to see how the utopian possibilities of BLM could also witness a similar fate. However, this need not be the case. There’s also a future in which calls to defund and abolish police extend to broader demands for disbanding the military, having worker control over the workplace, a living wage, Medicare and housing for all. What matters is for today’s activists to continue to recognize that utopian yearnings are fragile and can easily be subverted from without or within – and to push for that horizon they believe will lead to global freedom. The more they lay out their dreams, the more likely they are to succeed; the more they play by the rules of power and what is “realistic” the less likely they will win even some of the smallest reforms.