The right train headed in the wrong direction is the wrong train for you.
Tonight, while heading home from a remarkable lecture by Professor Hortense Spillers at Barnard College, I found the right train line to take me back towards Harlem. Then I zoned out just long enough to transfer onto an express train going south rather than north.
The detour gave me time to think. I’d taken quite extensive notes during Spiller’s lecture on freedom, identity, intimacy, and power. Spillers has convinced me that it’s worth noticing where analysts and social commentators focus on interpersonal relationships—such as how a marginalized segment of the political spectrum should be patient or kind to another exercising dominance over them—yet leave structural and power dynamics untouched.
Spillers described how colonial enslavement across 18th Century France, Haiti, and the United States defined Black people, Black women in particular. This system, and the network of ideologies that sustained it, undermined enslaved people’s bodily integrity’ and rendered them susceptible to coercive and violent relationships. Spillers also argued that whatever sentiments arose between individual people, they did not challenge the currents of enslavement and capital crisscrossing “masters” and “slaves” alike.
There are movements today that prefer to promote private sentiments rather than engage social structures: “Love is love is love” is much more easy to digest than the social deconstruction needed for “love” to be grounded, meaningful, and just. But it’s the former that catches spotlights, not the latter. The diversion of the personal when we need attention to the structural is like the right train going in the wrong direction.
After all, there is nothing wrong with love (this is a good Valentine’s Week affirmation!). It only serves us to assess what that love means in contexts of abuse and power-over; what it means in the heart of the slavedriver and the mouth of the autocrat; and what’s left of love for the rest of us reaching for freedom in the shadow of No. 45.
The event livestream is available on the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s Facebook page. An edited and sound-checked copy of the video will be posted on the BCRW website. In the meantime, recap my tweets.