Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from Making Kin not Population, edited by Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2018).
afterlife \ˈaf-tər-ˌlīf \
; an existence after death
; a later period in one’s life
; a period of continued or renewed use and existence
beyond what is normal, primary, or expected
Vampirically, white vitality feeds on black demise—from the extraction of (re)productive slave labor to build the nation’s wealth to the ongoing erection of prison complexes to resuscitate rural economies—in these ways and many more, white life and black death are inextricable. Racist structures not only produce, but reproduce whiteness, by resuscitating the myth of white innocence that inheres in the racial status quo. Racist systems are thereby reproductive systems.
In the U.S., our institutions are especially adept at resurrecting white lives that snuff out black ones. Exhibit A: On October 25, 2017, an Oklahoma judge ruled that officer Betty Jo Shelby would have her record wiped clean after being acquitted of murdering an unarmed black motorist, Terence Crutcher, 40-year-old African American father stranded on the side of a highway. Wiped clean. So as to remove any trace she was at the scene of a crime. Wiped clean, as one might do in a lab to avoid contamination, or a clinic to avoid infection. Reproducing white lives requires ongoing sterilization. Wiped clean, too, as with a baptism. White people are not just born once, but over and over, resurrected through law and custom, in order that they may kill with impunity.
If biological reproduction begets life, then social reproduction begets afterlives. White afterlife is, to be sure, a threat to black life. “Afterlife,” in this sense, is a world of second chances. Exhibit B: In December 2014, the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite went viral with white people across the U.S. admitting to crimes for which they were routinely excused [quoted below as they appeared in original posts]:
In college I punched a cop in the face while drunk but he drove me and my friends home.
At 13 I stole a car with my friends & drove it 2wks before we got busted. Only one charged was black.
#CrimingWhileWhite at 15, cops search a car I was in, found my weed, my switchblade + my vodka. they called my parents + gave it all back.
Just got pulled over for almost hitting someone. Didn't have my license or insurance. Not even the threat of a ticket #CrimingWhileWhite
I shoplifted when I was 14 and they let me go because my parents came down and we “looked like a nice family.”
#CrimingWhileWhite A bunch of bankers took down the economy and never went to jail.
To be white is to colonize the afterlife. Second chances are the currency of white supremacy, “benefit of the doubt” is the credit system, a “fresh start” is the return on investment. If there is a Race Card at play, as so many believers in reverse-racism claim, white people are born with the platinum version and its killer rewards program, in hand. Meanwhile, in a parallel social universe. . .
Second chances are the currency of white supremacy. “Benefit of the doubt” is the credit system; a “fresh start” is the return on investment.
Blackness is being born under a mountain of racial debt. As Saidiya Hartman writes, “Debt ensured submission; it insinuated that servitude was not yet over and that the travails of freedom were the price to be paid by emancipation.” Hence enslaved black people were forced to “self-purchase” their own freedom, for they could not even claim a property right in themselves. Is it any wonder that, as Hartmann describes, the enslaved used “stealing away” to describe not only the act of running away, but also in reference to a wide range of everyday activities:
Stealing away involved unlicensed movement, collective assembly, and an abrogation of the terms of subjection in acts as simple as sneaking off to laugh and talk with friends or making nocturnal visits to visit loved ones . . . These nighttime visits to lovers and family were a way of redressing the natal alienation or enforced “kinlessness” of the enslaved.
Moreover, Hartman aptly dubs the perverse “political arithmetic” that continues to devalue black Americans the “afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration and impoverishment,” and perhaps most of all, devalued reproduction. If, as I have suggested, whiteness provides countless opportunities for rebirth, the racialized counterpart is a cruel protraction of life, how a torturer (or torturous system) works slowly, methodically, and viciously to render a fate worse than death. For that reason, reproductive justice extends well beyond the body—so often the site of trauma and exploitation—to encompass the full range of life-affirming practices that implicate the body politic writ large.
Black life is expensive, for sure, but so is black death. Even today, the kin of those who are unjustly slain are left holding the bill. Exhibit C: Two months after a grand jury failed to indict the officer who fatally shot Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was found playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, the city billed the Rice family for the dead child’s last ambulance ride.
Claim for Tamir Rice's Last Dying Expense
Racial debt is not only a product of black death, but also its precursor. Well before Michael Brown was murdered in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, that municipality began exacting a pernicious form of economic terrorism that continues to extract millions of dollars in fines and forfeitures from its predominantly black citizenry. In fact, a recent study by Sances and Young You of 9,000 U.S. cities confirms that municipalities with a higher percentage of African American residents are more likely to use fines as the basis for city revenue. As one observer put it, “It’s easy to see the drama of a fatal police shooting, but harder to understand the complexities of municipal finances that created many thousands of hostile encounters, one of which turned fatal.” Black debt, in short, begets black death which begets black debt in a recursive chain.
Before 29-year-old Sandra Bland died in a Texas jail, she was charged a $5,000 bail, which she could not afford. According to a federal study there are over half a million people sitting in city and county jails who have not been convicted. In 2016 alone, there were over 800 documented fatalities among those in lockup because they could not post bail. This is a form of “premature death” that political geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines as a key feature of racist state violence. A perverse calculus of human worth presses down on kin and community, who are literally left holding the bill, financially as well as emotionally. Speaking at a Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, Sandra Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, testified:
What I’m going to say to you is that I’m here representing the mothers who are not heard. I am here representing the mothers who have lost children as we go on about our daily lives. When the cameras and lights are gone, our babies are dead. So I’m going to ask you here today to wake up. Wake up. By a show of hands, can any of you tell me the other six women who died in jail in July 2015 along with Sandra Bland? That is a problem. You all are among the walking dead, and I am so glad that I have come out from among you. I heard about Trayvon, I heard about all the shootings, and it did not bother me until it hit my daughter. I was walking dead just like you until Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in Texas.
In this testimony, we witness how waking up after death is a call for solidarity and an insistence that Black Afterlives Matter. It is part of a broader repertoire of invoking the slain to vivify collective action.
Scholar of modern slavery Zhaleh Boyd connects this form of invocation to the idea of “ancestral co-presence.” She refers to hashtag signifiers, like #SayHerName, as gathering points that make present the slain and call upon recent ancestors—Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Ayana Jones, and so many others—as spiritual kin who can animate social movements. Boyd further traces the relationship between this digitally mediated form of connectivity to the use of co-presence by legendary African figures such as Queen Nanny, Boukman, and Gullah Jack, who called upon ancestral powers in their fight against imperialist, white supremacist opponents. Co-presence, in short, troubles the line between the biological living and dead by calling forth spiritual practices of ancestral communication, now taking new forms via social media, yet retaining key features of African diasporic traditions.
If biological reproduction begets life, then social reproduction begets afterlives.
Yes, subordination, subjugation, subaltern, literally “under the earth,” racialized populations are buried people. But there is a lot happening underground. Not only coffins, but seeds, roots and rhizomes. And maybe even tunnels and other lines of flight to new worlds, where alternative forms of kinship have room to grow and to nourish other life forms and ways of living. In her discussion of more contemporary fictive kin networks in the African diaspora, Patricia Hill Collins explains,
Enslaved Africans were property . . . and one way that many resisted the dehumanizing effects of slavery was by re-creating African notions of family as extended kin units. . . . Experiences of both being nurtured as children and being held responsible for siblings and fictive kin within kin networks can stimulate a more generalized ethic of caring and personal accountability. . . . At the same time, the erosion of such networks in the face of the changing institutional fabric of Black civil society points to the need either to refashion these networks or develop some other way of supporting Black children. For far too many African-American children, assuming that a grandmother or “fictive kin” will care for them is no longer a reality.
In the broadest sense, what is at stake in the idea that Black Afterlives Matter is the practice of making kin, not only beyond biological relatives, but also with the materially dead/spiritually alive ancestors in our midst.
Black afterlives are animated by a stubborn refusal to forget and to be forgotten. Hartmann explains that one of the main gatherings for which the enslaved would “steal away” was the praise meeting where the evocation of the ancestors was central to imagining freedom. Here they would enact “ancestral landscapes.” In “remembering things they have not witnessed or experienced ‘like when they lived in Africa and done what they wanted,’ an insurgent nostalgia that expressed a longing for home that most could only vaguely recall or that lived only in the imagination transformed the space of captivity into one inhabited by the revenants of a disremembered past.”
Paulleatha V. White, director of the South Central office of the Los Angeles County Department of Adoptions, and the author's grandmother.
Materializing meta-kinship that exceeds biological relatedness continues to take many forms. It manifests in efforts to institutionalize kinfulness, in a literal sense, through foster parenting and adoption. My grandmother, for example, directed the Department of Adoptions in Compton, Los Angeles, the largest such agency in the nation at the time. She sought to dissolve the many bureaucratic and financial impediments that left so many black children stranded and kinless. Today this work is extended by organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). They developed a Kinship Care Resource Kit geared toward community and faith-based organizations to increase public understanding of the millions of households in which grandparents or extended family members are raising children. Running against the penchant towards social abandonment, black people have always had to construct their own afterlives through alternative family formations in the midst of crisis.
Born of necessity, perhaps, the cultivation of extended kinfulness is also a source of black pride. In a comedic take on the racial contours of kinship, writer Damon Young asks the million-dollar question: “Do White People Have Cousins?” Here he considers the “spiritual and metaphysical” dimensions of family formation by questioning whether race has anything to do with one’s reverence for “cousin culture.” This is a culture that dissolves the distinctions between first, second and third cousins and routinely includes those who “don’t share any blood” into the fold of cousinhood. He adds that one plausible theory for the relative elasticity of black kinship and the “buffering” role of cousins is that groups navigating hostile social conditions “need all the family we can get.” In the end, Young acknowledges that there are likely regional (and I would add, class) differences that challenge any easy Black-White distinction. Moreover, whether people imagine themselves connected based on a shared genetic code or as targets of a brutal legal code, bonds of relation may bind us even as they promise to—and do—buttress us.
However, when kin are the source of hurt or harm, it may in fact be wise to sever ties. Kinship, in other words, can be deadening when the obligations it entails are abused in and beyond the family. In a particularly disquieting example, Anne Pollock explains how the governor of Mississippi commuted the dual life sentences of the Scott sisters on the condition that “Gladys Scott donated a kidney to her ailing sister.” Kinship, in this case, was enrolled in the larger project of mass incarceration and even though it was activated in the process of “release,” the extraordinary condition imposed by the state exposes the coercive potential of familial obligations.
Black afterlives are animated by a stubborn refusal to forget and to be forgotten.
Kinship with the dead has its own demands and effects. Caring for the dead, even when not blood relatives, is a site where meta-kinship materializes in unexpected ways. Black Virginians, for example, are working to revitalize the neglected cemeteries of those who are not necessarily their biological relatives, but to whom they feel an extended kin obligation. They clear away foliage that hides long-forgotten graveyards and call for public support to memorialize the enslaved who are buried there. They point to the fact that the state has, for generations, earmarked funds to private organizations that maintain Confederate cemeteries, a practice that made The New York Times in an article by Brian Palmer. White Affirmative Action, it seems, knows no earthly bounds. But if material abandonment in death mirrors social abandonment in life, then maybe attending to “the needy dead,” in Toni Morrison’s words in Beloved, can disrupt “the order and quietude of everyday life,” enlivening the memory and machinations for freedom of those restless underground.
While STS scholars like Haraway, Latour, Chen and others have done well in theorizing the different forms of agency exercised by living nonhumans, with increasing attention to the possibility of forging multispecies justice, for example in work by Kirksey and Haraway, there has been far less attention to immaterial actants such as those inhabiting the ancestral landscapes described above, with Kim TallBear as an outstanding counter example. In conversation with Indigenous metaphysics, Black feminist STS approaches to race and epistemology, for example in work by Sylvia Wynter and also Alexander Weheliye, not only disrupt the human-machine distinction, but also reimagine and ultimately refashion forms of spiritual kinship in which Black Afterlives Matter. Kim TallBear explains that she doesn’t feel the need to adopt more “secular” language in her analysis, as she feels “comfortable enfolding spirits or souls into the beingness of nonhumans.” With TallBear, I encourage ethnographic attention to afterlives as a necessary part of deepening our knowledge more broadly, regarding kin making and reproduction specifically. Situating the idea of co-presence in a Black feminist approach to kinship draws attention to everyday spiritual technologies, which typically remain buried in secular theorizations of technoscience. Again, there is a lot that happens underground.
• • •
Life After Death
Imagining life after death, and what it might mean to craft kinship with the dead, requires experimenting with fiction. The novel Kindred by Octavia E. Butler gives voice to the possibility of black afterlives in an exchange between Dana, the modern protagonist and time-traveler, and Sarah, an enslaved woman. Here Sarah tries to warn Dana about the dangers of running away from the Maryland plantation on which they find themselves:
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “You need to look at some of the niggers they catch and bring back,” she said. “You need to see them—starving, ’bout naked, whipped, dragged, bit by dogs. . . . You need to see them.”
“I’d rather see the others.”
“The ones who make it. The ones living in freedom now.”
“If any do.”
“Some say they do. It’s like dying, though, and going to heaven. Nobody ever comes back to tell you about it.”
No body ever comes back, perhaps, but spirits and ancestors might. And here is where our stories of what is and what is possible matter. They produce meaning and material with which to build (and destroy) what we call “the real world.”
As I have argued elsewhere, one way of experimenting with alternatives to the racist status quo is by employing speculative methods. In this moment of social crisis, where even the most basic assertion that black lives matter is contested, we are drowning in “the facts” of inequality and injustice. Whether it is a new study on criminal justice disparities or another video of police brutality, demanding empirical evidence of systematic wrongdoing can have a perverse quality—as if subjugated people must petition again and again for admission into the category of “human,” for which empathy is rationed and applications are routinely denied. Consider the following stories of afterlife.
• • •
Life After Nuclear Fallout
When I was fifteen years old, my family moved from Conway, South Carolina to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, so my parents could begin working with the Marshallese Department of Education. The Marshall Islands are best known for the fact that they were the site of U.S. nuclear testing from 1946 to 1958, sixty-seven tests in all. By one calculation, if the combined explosive power were split evenly over that 12-year period, it would equal 1.6 Hiroshima-size explosions per day. Needless to say, this history of militarism and imperialism continues to wreak havoc on the health of the Marshallese: “burns that reached to the bone . . . cancers in the short and long term,” and congenital disabilities that cause babies to die hours after birth.” One report sums it up, “The Marshallese are convinced that there is sufficient evidence . . . of inter-generational harm caused by radiation fallout.”
Now add to this the widespread displacement Marshallese people have experienced, first for the purposes of nuclear testing and now as a function of U.S. military presence. When I had the chance to travel from Majuro to neighboring islands, I was struck by how crudely inequity was engineered: Kwajalein, a U.S. army installation was a manufactured suburbia, occupied almost entirely by military personnel and their families, enjoying golf courses, Baskin Robbins, and a yacht club among other amenities. The neighboring island of Ebeye is where islanders forced off Kwajalein to make room for the army base now reside in a crowded shantytown commonly known as “the slum of the Pacific.” Ebeye residents require a special pass to travel to Kwajalein for work, while others barely subsist on the small checks the U.S. government dispenses.
Needless to say, people are suffering not only from the history of direct fallout of nuclear testing, but also because of the oppressive conditions of their present lives—evidenced most readily in the high rates of chronic and infectious diseases including a TB rate that’s 23 times that of the U.S., and occasional outbreaks of cholera and dengue fever. In this way, military technologies are reproductive technologies—diminishing the capacity of those who are its victims to thrive, propagate, and imagine much less create their own futures.
Witness, for example, Marshallese children burying themselves in a make-believe cemetery—a reminder of how their lives have been biologically engineered—not in a lab, but in contaminated environments. In many ways, the Marshall Islands are a metaphor for modernity, in which the health and wellbeing of some are predicated on the immiseration, even slow extermination, of others.
Marshall Islands Sand Cemetery. Source: Vlad Sokhin. Published with permission.
• • •
Life After Sterilization
As a student at Spelman College in the late 1990s, I worked on a thesis project focused on how racism, sexism, and capitalism get under people’s skin and impact women’s childbearing experiences. About midway through the research process, I interviewed a classmate who told me about how when she was seventeen years old, she delivered her baby via C-section. As she explained it, sometime during the process, the doctor turned to her mother and asked, matter-of-factly, “While I have her open, should I just go ahead and tie her up?” The doctor, in short, proposed sterilizing my classmate without her consent, but my classmate vehemently objected. This was a full 40 years after famed civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer told her own story about checking in to Sunflower City Hospital to have a tumor removed, and walking out with what she later called a “Mississippi Appendectomy.” In her words, “an unwanted, unrequested and unwarranted hysterectomy [was] routinely given to poor and unsuspecting Black women,” usually performed postpartum. It was during this research process, especially talking with my classmate when I started to understand that, depending on one’s social status, reproductive capacity may be celebrated and encouraged or disparaged and repressed, a rationing of agency that has been critically assessed by feminist scholars and activists.
This is not the stuff of dusty archives, put to rest with the passage of a few laws. Eugenic sensibilities and practices are alive and well. In the last few years, the coercive sterilization of prisoners has garnered greater attention and outrage. As late as 2010, an investigative report of California prisons revealed this trend; and in 2017, Derek Hawkins of The Washington Post reported that a Tennessee judge granted shorter sentences for prisoners who agreed to be sterilized. These “negative” eugenic practices that repress the reproduction of some are tied to seemingly more liberal, market-based, “positive” eugenic practices that encourage those deemed valuable to reproduce and even select the traits of their offspring. Two sides of the same reproductive coin.
In his classic text The Souls of Black Folks, W. E. B. DuBois queried, “How does it feel to be a problem?” In the context of our current discussion here, we might better ask, “How does it feel to be a . . . population?” To be a racialized population, after all, is to be a stubborn problem and an insistent people. To be subordinated, however, also entails inhabiting subterranean spaces where it is possible to forge new forms of kinship. Living life so close to death requires honing spiritual technologies to access the afterlife, calling upon ancestors, #SayHerName #FannieLouHamer, to vivify the movement for black lives. But first, some time travel. . . .
• • •
Life After Earth
In 200 years, overpopulation on Earth compels humanity to spread across the solar system, colonizing Mars and the Asteroid Belt, where several generations of humans have been born and raised as Martians and Belters, respectively. This fictional world is the premise of a book series adapted for television, called The Expanse. Unlike many speculative tales, the series presents a remarkably diverse cast that challenges contemporary racial and gender hierarchies, while also signaling how racial vision and division may be reconfigured in the future. Human descendants on Mars are a formidable threat, physically and militarily stronger than others in the solar system, intent on engineering their new home to be more habitable.
Fictions are not falsehoods but refashionings, elaborating new values and testing different possibilities for creating more livable worlds.
The Belters, in contrast, are presented as weaker. Not only do Earthers and Martians dominate them politically and economically, but Belters are also physically more vulnerable. Due to the grueling conditions of life in low gravity (“low g”), they have begun to experience physiological changes like elongated limbs, bigger heads, and longer spines that set them apart from Earthers and Martians. Their language, too, has evolved into a Belter patois, which includes hand signs that allow them to communicate because they have to spend so much time in space suits. Due to the oppressive conditions on the Belt, where inhabitants are required to extract and export resources for Mars and Earth, Belters can barely afford the air they breathe, much less adequate food and water. This is a world of manufactured scarcity and precarity, not unlike our own.
In the future, as in the past and present, environmental exposures and social hierarchies are embodied. After several generations of living under such conditions, economic and political domination literally get under the Belters’ skin. Not only are their bodies adapting to low gravity, but attempts to remedy the effects, like providing bone density juice to children, further exacerbate health disparities when people cannot access the medicine they need. In this world, “kinlessness” is a liability as when low quality serum is handed off to kids who are wards of the state—a future that echoes back into our present where black children are shuttled through the U.S. foster system at a disproportionate rate, a process well documented in Dorothy Roberts’s 2002 book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare.
Thus, in a vicious feedback loop that should sound eerily familiar, unjust conditions that produce racialized physical and cultural differences further set Belters apart. Earthers and Martians point to these distinctions as “natural,” evidence of Belters’ inherent inferiority—justifying the continued subjugation of those whose land and labor (but not whose lives) are valuable. The physical differences that distinguish the Belters are not so much figments of the imagination, but materializations of a dominating imagination. Systems of domination require powerful narratives to allow those who hoard resources to sleep at night. Rather than acknowledge how exploitation and ghettoization produce the weak physiology of Belters, those in power view such physical differences as proof that the subjugated are not strong enough to govern themselves. Through interlocking logics of racism and ableism, biological differences become indicators that oppressive social orders simply reflect the natural order. As M’charek states, “The factness of facts depends on their ability to disconnect themselves from the practices that helped produce them.”
One of the main protagonists, a Belter named Joe Miller, for example, hides the “spurs on the top of his spine” with a hat—hinting at the racialized shame that attaches to disability. As analysts, we must attend to the materiality of spurs protruding from the backs of the oppressed without losing site of their sociopolitical determinants and cultural meaning. Domination burrows under the skin, converting structural inequalities into biological differences and mystifying the former in the process, so that, as M’charek insists, “the challenge in studying race is to denaturalize without dematerializing it, and to simultaneously attend to materiality without fixing race.” In The Expanse, racism is not simply a carryover from humanity’s past, but is reproduced and reimagined as a new yet no less destructive afterlife.
Fictions, in this sense, are not falsehoods but refashionings through which analysts experiment with different scenarios, trajectories, and reversals, elaborating new values and testing different possibilities for creating more livable worlds. And the work of peopling anti-racist feminist worlds abounds! In addition to Butler’s stories, all of which remake reproduction and kinship in different ways, many other contemporary black, Latinx, and indigenous writers continue in this speculative tradition, from collections such as Dark Matter in 2000 and 2004 and Octavia’s Brood in 2015, to writers such as Tananarive Due, Jewelle Gomez, Nalo Hopkinson, Andrea Hairston, NK Jemison, Nnedi Okorafor, Nisi Shawl, and Joanne Barker, among many others. In Barker’s “The Seeders,” for example, a group of women plot to overthrow a militarized star ship headed to the red planet. In Barker’s telling, conventional antagonisms between humans and aliens found in mainstream SF give way to worlds in which indigeneity and extraterrestriality are not at odds. The narrator’s indigenous kin are “from the stars.” And even more relevant for this discussion, throughout the journey the irreverent wisdom of ancestors is called forth in the tradition of “co-presence” to guide dissidents struggling to fashion a life after Earth. Indeed, speculative methods are a mode of envisioning afterlives, extending present configurations of power and difference into the future to see how they might materialize and morph into (and beyond) our wildest imaginations. Rewind, now, to the present. . . .
• • •
Terraforming planets gives way to engineering genomes. “Afterlife” in this situation concerns traits deemed desirable, worthy of extending their genetic life into future generations. Designer Genes, Couture Cells, Must-have Mitochondria. The newfound capacity to synthesize human biology raises fundamental questions of reproductive value. How we think about such genetic engineering has implications for all other arenas of social life and public policy, whether housing, education, employment, or incarceration. In deciding which afterlives to engineer, we select and reinforce criteria for what kinds of people to invest in, and who may be disposed of.
As reproductive justice advocates and analysts like Dorothy Roberts and Charis Thompson have long argued, water, food, education, and healthcare are all tools of reproduction, as they impact our life chances in profound and profoundly unequal ways. This more elastic notion of technology should lead us to consider how engineering human genomes is always already entangled with the assembly of municipal water systems, which is also connected to the structuring of tax codes, which is linked to the construction of racially segregated neighborhoods, which are manufactured in direct relation to the U.S. prison apparatus in what Loïc Wacquant describes as a “deadly symbiosis.”
Engineering, in the more generic sense, means to work artfully to bring something about, and there is nothing intrinsically “good” about the outcomes of sociotechnical designs. In fact, as a species, we have proven very adept at engineering inequity. So the questions we must now ask are: Is it possible to channel our tool-making prowess to artfully engender more just and equitable futures? Can we decolonize our afterlives, and make black reproduction matter as part of ongoing futurist, feminist agendas? Ultimately, reproductive justice entails crafting and imagining the worlds we cannot live without just as we dismantle the ones we cannot live within, where crafting and dismantling have as much to do with imaginaries as they do social policies.
For those whose ancestors were enslaved, the assault on black kinship is ever-present and pernicious. This is not simply a byproduct but a central tenet of maintaining white social order. Moreover, such ongoing regimes of social control and containment have led to new forms of natal alienation; for example, Murphey and Cooper tell us that one in seven black children in the US has had a parent behind bars. For the targets of institutionalized kinlessness, reproductive justice requires working deliberately and creatively to engender institutions and environments that foster a kinful existence.
To that end, I concur with a growing body of work arguing that prison abolition is a central pillar of reproductive justice because one of the most violent threats against black families and communities is the carceral system. Building on these analyses, I suggest that a black feminist STS approach to prison abolition illuminates the many technological fixes peddled as futurist, even “family friendly,” solutions to the carceral status quo. Leading this trend is the popularity of electronic monitoring (EM) technologies to address the unsustainable overcrowding of jails and prisons and the social consequences of mass incarceration that Molly Carney writes about. Proponents of e-monitoring argue that such devices not only cost less and promote public safety, but also allow those monitored to integrate into work and family life as they await trial or serve parole. In short, such fixes are offered up as technical and social innovations, helping to sustain the kinship ties of those monitored, when in fact they extend scrutiny to entire families and communities.
As people who have been subjected to surveillance and those who have researched the implications of mass monitorization argue, its depiction as an “alternative” to incarceration is based on a number of faulty assumptions, and it should more aptly be called “e-carceration,” discussed by Malkia Cyril. In the first ever report to analyze the proliferation of electronic monitoring of youth in California, we learn that e-monitoring entails a combination of onerous and arbitrary rules that end up forcing youth back into custody because of “technical violations.” Attractive fixes, it turns out, produce new grounds for subjugation. These purported solutions appropriate feminist concerns about the wellbeing of subjugated groups, even while threatening the ability of black families and communities to survive, much less flourish. In many ways, such newfangled regimes of surveillance colonize life after incarceration. Making Black Afterlives Matter as a reproductive justice priority requires not only abolishing prisons but also deactivating the many innovative e-offspring that are falsely presented as more humane.
There is a lot happening underground: not only coffins, but seeds, roots and rhizomes. And maybe even tunnels and other lines of flight to new worlds.
In contrast, innovating kinship takes many forms and employs a variety of methods. For example, Mariame Kaba describes a “Holiday Family Reunification” event organized by prison abolitionists to give incarcerated women who are criminalized survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse as an opportunity to “spend a day with their children and other family members.” Innovating kinship also materializes in the work of organizations like Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (Mothers ROC), mobilizing around the “symbolic power of motherhood” as a political identity to challenge the institutionalized kinlessness that locks away their children of all ages. Mothers ROC actively transforms mothers’ “reproductive labor as primary caregivers into activism; the activism expands into the greater project to reclaim all children, regardless of race, age, residence, or alleged crime.” In its early days, Mothers ROC organized cooperative radical self-help strategy sessions in the community room of a public housing project. Members soon began to extend their reach and reclaim space and power in the context of hyper-segregation and isolation—organizing a gang truce so family and community members could safely navigate turfs and participate in a public funeral procession for a young man killed by police. In the weeks to follow, they organized rallies and protests, and later developed a sustained effort that gives family members support and tools to demand justice for their children who are eaten alive by a ravenous carceral system. Cultivating kinfulness for Mothers ROC involved developing an analysis of and commitment to fight anti-black racism, while also welcoming Latina and white mothers of prisoners into their ranks. According to political geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, activists who engage in “social mothering” in this way present us a “glimpse of utopia’s work” by mobilizing across the many boundaries upon which oppressive carceral geographies depend:
They come forward, in the first instance, because they will not let their children go. They stay forward, in the spaces created by intensified imprisonment of their loved ones, because they encounter many mothers and others in the same locations eager to join in the reclamation project. . . . In other words, techniques developed over generations, on behalf of Black children and families within terror-demarcated, racially defined enclaves, provide contemporary means to choreograph interracial political solidarity among all kinds of “mothers” losing their loved ones into the prison system. . .
This “choreography,” in turn, does not only take shape in connection with the carceral state, but also among activists organizing around education, healthcare, work, and all the many life-affirming projects that are severed in oppressive regimes of social control. Solidarity across differences is not a pre-existing condition but an outgrowth generated in the day-to-day labor of building political movements. Reorienting ourselves towards kinship not as a precursor but as an effect of social struggle denaturalizes what kinfulness means and how to enact it.
All kinship, in the end, is imaginary. Not faux, false, or inferior, but, as Alondra Nelson shows us, a creative process of fashioning care and reciprocity. Is it any wonder that black people, whose meta-kinship threatens the biological myth of white supremacy, have had to innovate bonds that can withstand the many forms of bondage that attempt to suffocate black life? Cultivating kinfulness is cultivating life.
Ruha Benjamin is associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University. She is the author of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier (Stanford 2013), Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Polity 2019), and editor of Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life (Duke 2019).
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The “culture of poverty” isn’t about moral failure but about reasonable adaptation to circumstances.
Segregation Is Still a Problem in the United States
As the United States has grown more diverse, it has moved from being “two societies, one black, one white,” in the words of the famous Kerner Commission, to two societies, white and nonwhite.