The End of the World: Reflections from Black Activism

By: Vincent Lloyd

June 9, 2020

Religion and Racial Justice: The George Floyd Protests

A police station in flames. Store windows smashed; goods taken. Protesters facing off against unidentified security forces across the street from the White House. Tens of thousands joining in protest in every American city, and many around the world. All this on top of an unprecedented pandemic inflicting death and suffering particularly on those who were already the most vulnerable. It feels like the end of the world.

According to the Black Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, returning in 1936 to his island home from studies in Paris, it is time to begin. “Begin what? / The only thing in the world worth beginning: / The End of the world of course.” In cosmopolitan Paris, talking with Black students from Africa, North America, and Europe, Césaire had realized that not just his island but the whole world was infected by anti-Black racism. Only by excising every infected component of the world—meaning ending the whole world—could life begin, not only for Black people but for everyone. Anti-Black racism distorts how we each see ourselves and our world, and so how we act in the world. 

Black studies theorists have recently picked up Césaire’s idiom, and it has traveled into Black activist spaces as well. Frank Wilderson, author of Afropessimism, argues that the world is so infected by anti-Blackness that no form of redress, nor any form of reasoning, is adequate. He recalls how, in multiracial activist spaces, Black folks are expected to name discrete ailments and quickly move to discerning the appropriate response. In an all-Black political space Wilderson describes, by contrast, folks easy move between reflecting on their experiences of microaggression, police harassment, mass incarceration, and slavery, effortlessly recognizing the linkage between them all. “Folks cried and laughed and hugged each other and called out loud for the end of the world. No one poured cold water on this by asking, what does that mean—the end of the world?”

The podcast of record in Black activist spaces is called "How to Survive the End of the World." Hosted by sisters Adrienne Marie and Autumn Brown, inspired by the post-apocalyptic science fiction of Black writer Octavia Butler, the podcast convenes discussions with grassroots organizers who at once diagnose intractable forms of domination (around race, gender, sexuality, ability, colonialism, and more) and describe the way that, in the practice of organizing, new futures are being conjured, even as those futures remain largely illegible from the perspective of the present. While the podcast is not religious, the Brown sisters are especially attentive to questions of spirituality. (Autumn Brown introduces herself on each episode as, among other things, a “theologian”; she has a master’s in theology from Oxford.)

In fact, talk of the world ending and the possibilities of new life that will follow are found frequently in Black activist spaces. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza now leads a spin-off called the Black Futures Lab, dedicated to helping communities dream a world otherwise—and then, based on that eschatological vision, discern how to focus activist work in the current world. United Church of Christ minister and activist Lynice Pinkard issued a call, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin protests, for “revolutionary suicide.” In the tradition of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, who penned a book titled Revolutionary Suicide, Pinkard diagnoses the extent to which interlocking systems of domination contribute to constituting who we are, shaping our desires and attachments. It is only by purging ourselves that we become prepared to work collectively toward a new future, totally different from the world we inhabit—and to achieve what Pinkard calls “salvation.”

In the wake of the Ferguson uprising in 2014, singer Lauryn Hill gave voice to the feelings of many poor and working class Black folks on the ground when she released her song “Black Rage.” Hill’s song is set to the tune of “My Favorite Things,” but she sings it with the opposite affect of Julie Andrews' iconic performance in The Sound of Music: with practiced dejection rather than delight, ornery rather than effervescent. Hill claims that Black rage originates in slavery and its afterlives, baked as they are into contemporary society and economy, doing violence to both bodies and souls. By remembering the interlocking systems of domination that constitute anti-Blackness, Hill concludes, “I don’t fear so bad.” On her diagnosis, Black rage is “made by ungodly control”—forces beyond this world, indescribable in this world, motivate and orient Black rage. These forces refuse to give domination the last word and so lessen our fear, even if they do not offer immediate happiness.

Demanding the end of the world implies that interlocking systems of domination (anti-Blackness, patriarchy, capitalism, settler colonialism) have captured the world. It also makes a claim of faith: The world is never fully captured by domination. There is always a remainder. Because domination has infected our language and our perception, we cannot point to that remainder and name it. But in song, poetry, dance, protest, and prayer we can conjure it now, and we can project it into the future, visioning a world without domination, after the world’s end. New life awaits after the end of the world.

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