Madness Has the Range

Over the next few weeks, we’re revisiting some of our favorite books. This week, we return to Therí A. Pickens’s Black Madness :: Mad Blackness (Duke University Press, 2019). We begin with an essay by Zandria Robinson.

You live, you die
And spend the years in between asking the question
Why you’ve been through what you’ve been
You lose, you win, you even pay for others’ sins
But you must always adore the skin you are in

– Amel Larrieux and The Roots, “Glitches (The Skin You’re In)

We are constantly in search of the language to talk about the things bigger than us that are inside of us, looking for the links between the stories that we know and the ones that we speculate about and imagine that will bring us that language. This is separate from but related to the necessity of record correction, or critical remembrance, depending on the audience. That is, although many of the answers our ancestors provided us were distilled in Black women’s practices of things we call Black feminism or womanism, often happening in literature and literary criticism, visual and sonic art, organizing, and the everyday culture work of Black femmes, in the dominant canonical literatures to which we are exposed, things proceeded ignorant or resentful of these knowings, or in stance of opposition, or in one of theft. We know this story as it is told, but I will rehearse it here again for good measure: academic feminist theory written by cis, straight, economically privileged white women was “challenged”—and by “challenged” I mean their already existing work and organizing received attention—by Black, Latinx, Chicana, indigenous, and Third World women; and this work then begot queer theory, which needed its own Black clapback, which begot in two branches disability studies and trans studies, which both needed a Black clapback; fast-forward and now apparently intersectionality is over because it is not enough. Hmph. This is why Black women be mad.

This is also why in her beautiful book of conversations on Blackness and madness, Therí Alyce Pickens must make correction a refrain, explaining that these conversations, the ones that she opens the door on and presents to us that consider the alternative co-constitutive possibilities and refusals of Blackness and madness, are and have been happening, just as we are and have been happening. That is, Black Studies and Disability Studies been talking, struggling, and examining, and reconfiguring accordingly, just not in the spaces where some folks tend to look, although we all should know we shouldn’t expect them there.

For Pickens, these conversations are happening in the most complex and puzzling ways in and across Black women’s speculative fiction, where to imagine alternative futures and fully assess our present, the relationships between Blackness and madness, race and disability, the human and the cyborg, must be given different life. She elucidates madness; shows how it is made and unmade and where and through what processes; how it is made within mostly Black worlds and spaces; challenges the tendency to wed madness to Western logics of psychology and biology; works in the tradition of shaking loose the category of human from its pedestal; and evaluates the meaning and value of mad Blackness/Black madness, and moreover, the use of meaning and value themselves as attributes of something so unwieldy. These are intentionally conversations without conclusions, that interrupt and disrupt one another, and that compel us to sense, however we choose, their resonance and reverberation throughout the field of Black Studies.

Madness in the text is capacious, containing (and importantly, not or refusing to contain or be conflated with) Blackness, disability, queerness, excess, and transgression. With all of its expansiveness, it exists and persists in the middle, the break, the fold, the rupture, the glitches. It is not working towards a utopian dialectical resolution, or a syncretism, or even an ending. At every turn, Pickens reminds us to resist Blackness as madness/disability or madness/disability as Blackness and points out where this tendency lurks in our scholarship variously to ableist and anti-Black ends. This is the key intervention of Black Madness :: Mad Blackness—its insistence on other registers for thinking about the relational field of race and disability.

As Pickens illustrates deftly across a range of literary texts, and particularly demonstrative selections and treatments of Black speculative fiction, Black folks have always thought about, theorized, and concerned ourselves with madness, not as analogy for or even fact of our conditions but as a category of projection and being, a watchful and observational site, a spiritual, ecstatic, liminal space of pause and future and present. It is a wonder to see Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, and Nalo Hopkinson’s characters and narratives deployed here towards the ends of rumination and consideration in and for themselves, rather than as warnings and prescriptions, a function liberalism, caught in a bind of its own making, often begs these kinds of writings, especially those by Black women, to serve.

Madness is important language for all manner of conditions we often identify in other kinds of ways. For Black Studies and Disability Studies, especially through the lens of Black speculative fiction, the language presents an opportunity to come as we are and be in the interstitial fray, free from the need to see ourselves precisely in the other to advance some goal. For folks struggling against Western institutions that violently misinterpret Black conditions even as they cause them, from medicine and healthcare to the justice system, madness allows a way out and a fruitful, if not satisfying, epistemological shift. Madness is where we might together spend the years in between life and death, in those glitches that invite, at last, a wry-smiled recognition and greeting.

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Zandria F. Robinson

Dr. Zandria F. Robinson is a writer and sociologist working at the intersections of race, gender, popular culture, and the U.S. South. A native Memphian and classically-trained violinist, Robinson earned the Bachelor of Arts in Literature and African American Studies and the Master of Arts in Sociology from the University of Memphis and the Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology from Northwestern University. Dr. Robinson’s first book, This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) won the Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Outstanding Book Award from the Division of Racial and Ethnic Minorities of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Her second monograph, Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life (University of California Press, 2018), co-authored with long-time collaborator Marcus Anthony Hunter (UCLA), won the 2018 CHOICE Award for Outstanding Academic Title and the Robert E. Park Book Award from the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association. Her next monograph, Soul Power: Race, Place, and the Battle for the Memphis Sound (University of North Carolina Press) examines race, culture, and neighborhood change in South Memphis, former home of the renowned soul music factory Stax Records. Follow her on Twitter @zfelice.