Poly-fugitivity: Utopian Relations in Dystopian Structures

Solidarity and promise keeping under the smoke of nation-states

An intersection with a memorial for George Floyd at the center that has a large sculpture of a fist in the air. Signs and flowers are arranged in a circle around the memorial, and people can seen standing on the outside looking in
1"Memorial for George Floyd - 38th and Chicago Avenue - South Minneapolis" by Tony Webster is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

“It seems unlikely the love affair the sonnets depict took place anywhere outside Shakespeare’s imagination.”1

I was in love when the uprising happened. With my partner at the time, and close friends. I live on Lake Street, in a relatively small apartment.  My window overlooks the Lake Street train station. I live a few blocks from where the police precinct burned down, in the name of George Floyd.

For a few months, however, while the city was on fire, I lived with my partner in another house on Elliot Ave. We heard voices. Helicopters too. At night, smoke touched every corner of our home. We had to sleep in the living room. Our bedroom was upstairs; heat rises. The National Guard started shooting people for being on their porches. They use what they call “less lethal ammunition.” We heard shouting. If not outside our windows, on our phones. Our news feeds were constant. Our friends were out there.

In our living room, under the smoke, out the sight of the National Guard, we talked about many topics. Romance, organizing, liberation, desires. Under these conditions, what name could we give an ongoing activity that is interested in connections between intimate human association and collective democratic projects?

Poly-fugitivity is a term I offer here, which not only gets us to think about our hearts in relationship to each other, but also how we keep the commitments and covenants of collective projects strong, and to see love as an exercise of commitment keeping. Collective organizing, in this context, is centered on keeping a series of promises to each other. To think of promises as intimate commitments—knowing, I should say, that we might not achieve our desired outcomes. And yet we persist. Poly-fugitivity perhaps offers us shifts in thinking that could make our movements more possible and flexible. And also, I think, provide ways of thinking that reduce anxieties around notions of achievement and success.

First, what is polyamory? There are multiple ways to think about polyamory that I love—no pun intended. The standard definition that everyone in the community usually cites is: the practice of dating multiple people with the consent of everyone involved. This definition is of use, and correct. However, what if polyamory isn’t only about having access to date other people? I want to zoom in on a programmatic view of polyamory. To think about it as a worldview. To take some time thinking on what polyamory can offer us as ways of knowing and organizing toward livable futures—inside and outside the romantic, and to think through the relations in between.

Though what does polyamory have to do with cultivating a community’s capacity for resistance? In my opinion, during an uprising, cities are brought into a polyamorous moment. What I mean by that is, cities are brought not only to think about the ideas that polyamory (particularly poly-anarchism) invites us to consider—but also, core questions of polyamory become front and center. Questions such as: what is required for multiple relationships—in this case, community organizing—to be possible? How can we achieve a state of sustained regard for one another? This poly worldview becomes fugitive when it is brief, but nevertheless useful—particularly useful when trying to flee state violence and bodily harm.

We see this in autonomous zones, for example the one taking place at George Floyd Square (GFS), where George Floyd was stolen.  The sign reads, “You have now entered the free state of George Floyd.” This is a polyamorous announcement. A declaration of relation. The announcement says, “We’re caring for one another in this place.” This polyamorous announcement is often against the state; the police don’t take good care of us. There seem to be more poets present than city officials. But how are we supposed to live here over time? These places often vanish as quickly as they spring up. In these places of community organizing, we often lose friends. Infighting persists. Rumors run deep. Gossip makes these places a mess. Why would anyone want to live here? Why would we want to sustain a polyamorous moment? Perhaps in spite of these harsh moments we can still make contact; we can still be cooperative.

Poly-fugitivity, as I see it, isn’t a realized state of perfect arrangements. It’s more of a sensibility that can be activated under a multitude of conditions. Sensibilities that are against the values of the state, markets, displacement, individuality, and property. To be poly-fugitive isn’t so much to be a person who is poly, though that may be the case. It isn’t about individual identity, it’s about solidarity and promise keeping under the smoke of nation-states.

For example, we can look to the Wobbly hobo jungles and their cooperative survival networks that John Curl describes in For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America. You can almost imagine he’s describing George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. How it echoes: the bus stop on 38th that has been transformed bit by bit into a clothing exchange. In both situations, what we see are the ways mutual aid is enacted on small scales during moments of duress.

“Wobbly hobo jungles were primarily transitory, erected and disbanded as the migrant workers followed seasonal work. The camps were self-governed by the rules, customs and divisions of labor, facilitated by the unifying force of the IWW. The hobo poet Harry Kemp wrote about the camp in 1911:

‘It is often a marvel of cooperation. Discarded tin cans and battered boilers are made over into cooking utensils and dishes… There is usually in camp someone whose occupational vocation it is that of a cook, and who takes upon himself, as his share of his work, the cooking of meals. Stews are in great favor in trampdom and especially do they like strong scalding coffee.

Usually the procuring of food in such a camp is reduced to a system… One tramp goes to the butcher shop for meat, one goes to the baker for bread, and so forth. And when one gang breaks up its members are always very careful to leave everything in good order for the next comers. These things are part of tramp etiquette…as is also the obligation each new arrival is under to bring, as he comes, some wood for a fire.’”2

Obligations are kinds of promises. Promises of association. What we might call laws of communalism. Here, the role of a poet is just as crucial. I think the sensibilities of a poet are shown. This site he is describing is “a marvel”—it’s beautiful. This is the architecture a poet finds stunning. There is no need for pillars of marble: community exists.  The poet here offers an intimate account of what takes place during these autonomous temporary zones. For me, the word to sit with is “temporary.” They’re fugitive because they’re destined for only a certain period of time, before something else happens, or someone else moves in to take their place.

Poly-fugitive sensibilities aren’t only in historic accounts. I believe we can also find them in science fiction. For example, Octavia Butler’s last novel, Fledgling, puts Shori, a young black vampire girl, under conditions that ask her to consider intimate relationality and what I think we could call fugitivity.  Shori wakes up naked, dazed, and confused in a cave without memory. The story of Fledging follows Shori as she searches to regain her memory, navigates bodily urges with other vampires, and learns about her identity. In the novel, Shori learns she is a unique vampire with some human DNA.

Image courtesy of Free Black Dirt.

In the world of Fledgling, vampires call themselves Ina, a separate species that cannot interbreed with humans. Shori finds out that she narrowly escaped when her entire female family was killed by another Ina family. Throughout the novel, Shori acquires knowledge of and control over herself as she grows into a competent member of the Ina species. This is most notable in collecting a community of symbionts: humans who grow addicted to a substance in a specific Ina’s saliva when bitten, but who also have a romantic and sexual relationship with him or her.

In all 310 pages, the word “polyamory” isn’t used in Fledging. But I do believe poly sensibilities are, and particularly poly-fugitive sensibilities. Butler gets us to think: what are the consequences of racial othering in a community? But also, under what conditions do human and nonhuman lifeforms seek intimacy and vulnerability? Under what conditions do we touch each other and desire to be touched?

For example, do the symbionts desire to be in relation with Shori only due to the addictive saliva, or are there other shared impulses that call them to her? Shori thinks to herself,“’Why kill a person who would willingly feed you again and again if you handled them carefully?’”3This regard for the careful handling of another life is what I’m thinking of as a poly-fugitive sensibility.  Not rooted in addiction, but rooted in caretaking. Are we organizers because we’re addicted to liberation, or are we organizers because we want to take care of each other? Another interesting dynamic is the agency of the symbionts, particularly around consent. Questions might arise when reading Fledging around whether consent is a value to Shori and the Ina community, or whether they are biting humans inconsiderate of their willpower. Shori has a conversation with her first symbiont named Wright:

“He fingered the place where I’d last bitten him and stared down at me. I took a deep breath.

‘I think you can still walk away from me, Wright, if you want to,’ I said. I wet my lips. ‘If you do it now, you can still go.’

‘Be free of you?’ he asked.

‘If you want to be free of me, yes. I’ll even help you.’

‘Why do you want to get rid of me?’

‘You know I don’t.’

‘But you want to help me leave you?’ He made it a flat statement, not a question.

‘If that’s what you want.’

‘Why?’

 
I took a deep breath trying to stay alert. ‘Because I think…I think it would be wrong for me to keep you with me against your will.’

… ‘How can you help me leave you?’

‘I can tell you to go. I think I can make it…maybe not comfortable, but at least possible, for you to go and have your life back and just…forget about me.’

‘I didn’t know what it would be like with you. I didn’t know I would feel…almost as though I can’t make it without you.’

…I kissed his hand, glad of his decision. It would have been hard to let him go—perhaps the hardest thing I could recall doing. I would have done it, but it would have been terrible. All I could do now was make things as safe as possible for the both of us.”4

All I could do now was make things as safe as possible for the both of us. For me, this is poly-fugitive sharing. Notice I say “sharing”and not conversation between two poly people. I’m not sure if either of them are poly. Again, it’s not about individual identity or having access to date multiple people, but intimate solidarity—a way of being with, in the interest of another’s liberation. This is also poly-fugitive because Shori and her partners throughout the novel are trying to avoid and find answers to bodily harm from other members of the Ina community. The avoidance of bodily harm from vigilante violence, or by way of the state, is a particular characteristic of fugitive movement, whether we are discussing Wobbly hobo jungles, maroon communities, or a fictional account of the lives of black vampires in search of memory and identity.

A willingness to take care in the interest of the safety of another is poly-fugitive—and again, it’s fugitive because the results of this “handling carefully” may conclude in a “goodbye” or “forget about me forever.” It may conclude in a brief encounter. These brief encounters are important to community organizers because they make it possible for us to continue. Heartbreak doesn’t allow continuity. It’s debilitating—platonic or otherwise. We cannot show up to the front lines of struggle heartbroken. We would be distracted. However, if we show up to the front lines of struggle in love, we will be enchanted. And that enchantment will give us the equipment to continue to organize against the state, because we will actually want to be together.5

The worldview that poly-fugitivity offers us sees the friend who loves you as a kind of localized paradise—a mode of association we find when we organize. In this way, I think polyamory can be an organizing strategy. We’d be responsible organizers to fall in love, with our friends and with our lovers—not because every connection will be romantic, sexually intimate, or intense, but because every connection will be cherished, which will sustain our activities. Though something can only be cherished through the keeping of promises. These promises are commitments we make to each other under the smoke of the nation-state.

To love someone is simply to say, “Bit by bit, this sharing sustains me.” To love is to say, “I am personally empowered when you’re joyful. To see you joyful is enchanting.” Polyamory: the romantic cooperative structure. This love becomes fugitive when it becomes brief, which isn’t to say lost. Brevity isn’t to be overlooked; within brevity we find sources that help us continue our efforts, both in love and in organizing. Perhaps, then, this framework is useful. Our nonprofits, our local cooperatives, the new collectives we see emerging in our neighborhoods: all of these projects may only last a few years. However, within them come ideas, new people, new languages, and a tossing out of the things that previously got in the way. We’re able to find new ways of moving toward the future.

Love that is fugitive is love that moves. You may lose contact temporarily. The friend disappears, moves away, ghosts, to perhaps appear again later. Love that is fugitive is love that is unsure if it will succeed. Me and my partner didn’t work out. But we visited paradise, mutually enchanted—during an uprising. Under smoke.

So what do we want when we talk about poly-fugitivity? We want to live in such a way that every association that matters to us is not only cherished, but viewed as a localized paradise. We may view our friend groups as little islands of experience, temporary as they may be. Our loved ones appear as small archipelagos, socially distant inside of coffee shops, bookstores, and workplaces, that we struggle to get closer to as we organize to make the world better. And in this experience of community resistance, we find we should not be like Shakespeare or the nation-state. These relationships don’t have to be quarantined to only our imagination or narrow conceptions of hierarchy. We can actually live what we write in our sonnets. Something special awaits us. The adventure is everywhere we are with those we love. To be poly-fugitive is to be in the situation of Suzanne Césaire:

“As Suzanne Césaire asserts, one is in ‘the tropics,’ where…human beauty diverts attention from the socio-economic… For some, ‘paradise, this soft rustling of palms;’ for others, the hell of grinding poverty.”6

To allow oneself to be enchanted by human beauty is a sensibility of poly-fugitivity. These modes of association are stunning. An encampment, a clothing exchange—these produce a kind of enchantment. Being enchanted is akin to one’s ability to be vulnerable. First you’re in awe, then you engage. That engagement produces vulnerability; we say yes to paradise. When our local communities open themselves to the activities that poly-fugitivity offers us, the easier it is to see our surrounding police forces and governments become obsolete. We don’t need them; our friends are available to us. The words of the Elizabethan poet become flesh. “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings. That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”7

Endnotes
  1. John Carey, Little History of Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 50.

  2. John Curl, and Ishmael Reed, For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 127.

  3. Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling (London: Headline, 2014), 48-49.

  4. Ibid., 48-49.

  5. See also: Adrienne Maree Brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2019).

  6. Suzanne Césaire, ed. Daniel Maximin, trans. Keith L. Walker, The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-1945) (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012), x.

  7. William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 29: When, in Disgrace with Fortune and…” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45090/sonnet-29-when-in-disgrace-with-fortune-and-mens-eyes.

Author
Keno Evol

Keno Evol is the Executive Director of Black Table Arts. Keno Evol is editor of A Garden Of Black Joy: Global Poetry From The Edges of Liberation And Living. At his core he is a facilitator of empathy and imagination. Black Table Arts is a community driven arts cooperative located in Minneapolis, Minnesota gathering black communities through the arts toward better black futures. Complete with a bookstore, shared workspace and a performance space (BTA) makes bold the connection between art and …   read more