Literature 5-29-2020

George Floyd & What black utopian thinking can offer us

Poet and educator Tikkun Bambara intervenes in an essay on black utopianism to respond to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and offers how we might listen for the future: a place of non-arrival and infinite relation, a place that has not been mapped out yet.

1Artwork by the author.

“Compared to the Marxists, ‘we are poets’…we anarchist utopians want ‘poetic vision,’ creativity, enthusiasm, harmony and solidarity.”

Gustav Landauer1

This essay began differently. Before the death. I was almost finished and then had to begin again. The recent news of George Floyd made me reconsider my starting point. A new location. He was murdered May 25th by police officer Derek Chauvin in South Minneapolis. 46 years old. 

I write this on my porch, thinking about a place of new beginning. How to re/edit this starting place. How to begin again when you’re almost finished. I sit, located at a new home. A new starting place. I just moved in. I am a poet who, for the past six years, has been running an arts and culture organization, Black Table Arts. We gather black people to imagine living and art making.  I am 27.

Yesterday I walked to where it happened. It was raining. The starting place of it all. Bodies weighed down by water. This new location. Of grief. Of flowers for a new name. This new place that is also so old.

The store on the corner.

There was a joy that was also grieving. Both existed at the same time. How strange. Black voices shouting. Black music, agreeing with us. Cardboard soaked with language made prayer. Black ink now made into puddles. Our black skin was wet. In this place where skin and wetness meet, what use is it to think of black utopia? This place where so many of us are standing. This site where it all began. Again.

Perhaps, maybe, all of us here at this site are what historian Russell Jacoby describes as iconoclastic utopians, or utopians without maps. What does it mean at this site to be a utopian without a map? How are we interested in this fragile term we call our future? Jacoby elaborates in his book Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age:

“…I wish to save the spirit but not the letter [or scholarly character] of utopianism. I am drawing a distinction between two main currents of utopian thought: the blueprint tradition and the iconoclastic tradition. The blueprint utopians map out the future in the inches and minutes…I turn instead to the iconoclastic utopians, those who dreamt of a superior society but who declined to give its precise measurements…is there a utopianism that listens for, but does not look into the future?”2

I’m interested in listening for the future. I have no map, nor am I interested in having one. Standing at the corner store where it all began, again—I heard sounds everywhere. Demands and disagreement. A constant repetition of songs. Songs so thick they didn’t seem to fade. They only started again.

I write this now, on my porch, thinking about a place of new beginning. How to re/edit this starting place. As I sit, I can hear sounds. Small creatures in trees who, I’m sure, if I could see them, would be beautiful. They’re singing. Their sound is the only way I know they’re close by.

As a poet I am a describer tho I haven’t been to the future yet. What does it mean to listen for the future? What are the ways iconoclastic utopians, or who we might call “silent utopians”, search for the terra incognitathat particular place that has not yet been mapped out?

In his book, Russell Jacoby brings in Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul, who says, “The beginning of the sentence has already been pronounced, and has already faded away; the end has not yet been spoken, and it will give meaning to what was said at the beginning.” “With sounds and spoken words,” we wonder, “what’s next?”3

In my small community in South Minneapolis, under pandemic and police violence, we are currently wondering: what’s next? Will we achieve justice? Is achievement even the right term? What can be achieved when the loved one is already stolen? After death, does achievement always live under grief? What’s able to be achieved inside a black utopia?

Well, what if we began at a new location. What if we began again on our own terms. What if we emerged a new vocabulary to talk about our fragile futures. What if we began at a kind of “unachievability”. What if we began there and still proceeded. Not because we’ll win, but because we’ll have an experience within our activities. Because we’ll get closer to each other. Perhaps this is what it means to be a utopian without a map.

What would happen if we leaned into “unachievability” while deepening our activities. How would our sites of possibility shift, how would our hopes deepen, if we opened up new conversations for failure. What would emerge if we linked our hopes with our failures? Knowing, like I know now, that we will have to begin again. Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger, in his book, Passion, says:

“Each of these failures teaches people something about what they may and may not expect from one another. This lesson has the power to contradict the ruling assumptions of a culture about the possibilities of human association.”4

What if we grew a new mode of human association. What if being “finished” isn’t possible. How could we show up for each other knowing these new conditions? These shifts in language do something to our bodies. These shifts are difficult.

What connection does failure have to black utopia? Russell Jacoby continues: “John Humphrey Noyes, himself a founder of a utopian community [called Oneida], marveled that these associations ‘started so gaily and failed so soon’…yet it wrongs history to ignore failure, as if nothing positive or humane comes out of it…out of defeat emerges ideas, changed people and new movements.”5

How odd. A corner store. The location where it all began, again. A gathering that death made. And also a gathering that we made. This place of black utopia to also be this place of grief. How theft brings unresolved moments in our experience. But then how can this be useful, if this is a site of failure?

Perhaps this place, where it all began again, is useful insofar as it gives us an activity to pursue. A horizon made black. And this activity, regardless of outcomes, will produce other activities, which is to say other modes of relation to pursue. An infinite activity of returning to sounds and relationships. Perhaps that’s the invitation an uprising presents to us. An invitation to return to relationships. And perhaps that invitation is a gift.

Perhaps those of us who are looting are interested in returning to sounds and relationships. Perhaps we are gathering supplies for particular modes of being in relation, what we might call “protection”, or “mutual aid”, or “guerilla reparations”.  Perhaps being a looter is a kind of way to be a utopian without a map. To be engaged in a kind of wild possibility.

It is true: we will fail soon and we will emerge sooner. We will have to begin again. Perhaps this is how we get closer to the future. Which is to say, the present moments we have yet to experience. Maybe when we get close to the future, we get closer to utopia. To the terra incognita—that particular place that has not yet been mapped out.

Alex Zalamin writes, “The list of utopian thought is endless…Black Utopia begins with the premise that the major reason utopia is a fruitful site for political theory is precisely that it lives on the precipice of human imagination, beyond the border of the possible.”6

To live in black utopia in my small community is to live on the border of the possible. To participate in an infinite activity that will never be finalized. Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin says in his book, We,  “How can there be a final revolution? There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.”7 We will fail soon and emerge sooner. And friends will arrive to occupy these spaces for them to be sustainable—temporarily.

I believe mathematician Eugenia Cheng got it right when speaking about the quantity 0.9. She writes about why mathematicians just don’t know what to do with this quantity that will never be one—and you can imagine her speaking about a black utopia. She says in her book, Beyond Infinity, “After a series of finite steps we still don’t arrive at the answer. We keep getting closer forever.”8

And there’s that word again: we. These finite steps are pursuits of a collective project. We keep getting closer forever. Closer to a non-arrival. And even closer to our relations. So why do black utopias matter? Because within them we learn how to pursue collective projects. Because we are black people who want to take care of other black people. Utopia is the point of departure that ends in a non-arrival. Utopia is an infinite activity of relation.

A poetic-shaped space of commune and vivid beauty: what the surrealists would call the marvelous. These spaces are usually—always—under siege. Police park on the grass near the playground. These are spaces of black utopia. Fred Moten is right when discussing “the black outdoors” with scholar Saidiya Hartman, describing the back roads in Arkansas: “I could just always hear somebody running.”9 This is what it means to be in black utopia.

We won’t arrive—but we will have an experience. One of regard and relation. We do this because it’s in our interest to act in particular regard to one another, because at particular points in time we can, through a series of finite steps, participate in activities that rescue us from what capitalism desires us to be.

In a utopian direction we arrive as black beings who then find ourselves living as black poets. But why is this particular utopian thought black? It’s black because it is fugitive. Because it retreats. Because it maroons. It’s black because its very failure emerges a blackness otherwise.

I write this on my porch, thinking about a place of new beginning. How to re/edit this starting place. How to begin again when you’re almost finished. I sit, located at a new home. A new starting place. Thinking of George Floyd, who was stolen. Who is now without location. Who is now made grievable.

As I sit on my porch, I can hear sounds. Small creatures in trees who, I‘m sure, if I could see them would be beautiful. They’re singing. Their sound is the only way I know they’re close by. How strange—to be in a place of so much beauty, sitting on my porch in my small community. To be as finite as I am. Surrounded by all this.

  1. Russell Jacoby, Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007): xiv.

  2. Jacoby, Picture Imperfect, 12.

  3. Jacoby, Picture Imperfect, 136.

  4. Carole Pateman, “Passion: An Essay on Personality. Roberto Mangabeira Unger,” Ethics 96, no. 2 (1986): 207.

  5. Jacoby, Picture Imperfect, 137.

  6. Alex Zamalin, Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019): 12.

  7. Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (New York: Harper Voyager, 1983).

  8. Eugenia Cheng, Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of the Mathematical Universe (London: Profile Books, 2018): 217.

  9. Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman, “TO REFUSE THAT WHICH HAS BEEN REFUSED TO YOU,” Chimurenga, October 19, 2018,

  1. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being

  2. M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong!

  3. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity

Tikkun Bambara

Tikkun is interested in Caribbean Surrealist Studies and Caribbean romanticism. 20th and 21st century Caribbean and African American feminist engagements with what surrealist poet Suzanne Cesaire called the domain of ‘the marvelous’ as a fertile theory, worldview, and method in black studies and black diasporic literatures. Tikkun’s research engages the surrealist dimensions of black studies and black poetics. Tikkun’s thematic interests include black utopian thought in the black radical…   read more