Diaspora is distance plus practice, entangled in mediated scenes, messy, lived.
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We’re on the far side of Yom Kippur. My mother sends me and my brother a photo of the Zoom service hosted by her synagogue up in Portland. The image is a bit blurred, a bit pixelated. The rabbi, speaker-view large, appears in mid-strum on his guitar, with a 1×6 column of participants stretching mid-song on the right-hand side of the screen. The sonic resonance can’t quite break through the photo, but it’s the noise in the signal that brings me closer to her and this fleeting moment, its low-fi intimacy, its traces of an imperfect digital translation like the smudge of ink on a handwritten letter.
Later, on our weekly family call—a standing date which began about a year ago and has only become more regularized during the pandemic—she tells me about the song. It’s an updated version of the liturgical poem Unetaneh Tokef, which was allegedly composed during the Byzantine period. The original poem is a litany for judgment. Stark poles define the parameters for the futures of the living, including “who shall have rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued . . . who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low.” For those who perish prematurely, Unetaneh Tokef shows death coming in many dramatic forms: swords and beasts, famines and earthquakes, strangulations and stonings. I remember being chilled as a child by its square-eyed view on mortality, the coarse language of spectacular forms of premature death stripped bare of metaphor.
The update to the poem, caught in that visual, sonic, digital blur, is everything. Fire. Searing. Written by the Black Jewish educator and organizer Imani Romney-Rosa Chapman, Unetaneh Tokef for Black Lives was posted to the Lilith Blog in June 2020. Also stripped of metaphor, this update cuts into the starkly mundane ways in which Black people have been killed in recent years. It is a haunting autopsy of four centuries of white supremacy. The mournful repetition, “who shall die while,” addresses a litany of present participles—“jogging, relaxing, holding, decorating, enjoying, sleeping, playing, shopping, reading, running.” The continuous present, fatally interrupted. Chapman’s song includes thirty names, personalizing premature death through the proper nouns of their being and their loss. Names are prefaced with hashtags. In doing so, they become inscribed not only as the traces of individuals to be contained within white supremacy’s Book of Judgement, but also as indexes for a network—an expansive and expanding set of material traces that cuts across time, space, and medium—that reaches out to connect, and in those desires for connection, signals communities composed of mournful and righteous rage. Distance plus practice.
The song is sung in the first-person plural. Black lives are a clarion “we” that unifies a people across more than four centuries, now numbering, as the song tells us, 47.8 million—an approximation of those who identify as Black in the United States, and in an uncanny coincidence, the number of times #BlackLivesMatter appeared on Twitter in the two weeks following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Unetaneh Tokef for Black Lives closes by addressing a “you,” the “white world” named in the song’s opening lines. You are both something far less precise, and far more challenging. The song figures Yom Kippur as a crucial moment not only for personal reflection on, but for collective reckoning with, the fatal consequences of white supremacy. Quoting from Mishnah Yomah, the song nears its close:
The Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness
Till he has become reconciled with the fellowman he wronged.
From the distance of scripture’s third-person singular, Chapman moves immediately to address directly a second-person plural, which is also the intimacy of a second person singular:
When will you atone? How will you atone?
For you, like us, will be judged.
You, like us, will return to dust.
The “white world” was made through conquest and slavery, a worldmaking that created whiteness as a self-authorizing and auto-legitimating regime. Reckoning with that world, the changeful complexity of what it has wrought, along with the worlds that live alongside, beneath, and beyond its ken, strikes me as part of what Unetaneh Tokef for Black Lives calls on us to consider.
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What, then, are the tensions between the you that is plural—a world composed in the calculus of white supremacy—and a you that is singular—an individual and the identity possessed therein?
Part of those tensions, it seems to me, can be grasped through a critical reckoning with the nation-state as such, a political structure that is only naturalized as the commonsensical way to organize political communities in the twentieth-century refashioning of a white world emergent from the ashes of European empires. Is the nation-state, that pharmakon of political modernity, the only means by which to advance a project of minoritarian self-determination? Does it allow us the necessary space to script the value of difference otherwise? Those noisy diasporic traditions of study—Jewish, Black, and Palestinian alike—suggest caution in a hastily affirmative response. As critical race scholars have long argued, whiteness is, among other things, a legal and political construction. It is mutable and shifting, and is materialized through a relation to property and profit, freedom and mobility. It is lived in the affective and somatic tenor of national belonging. Whiteness is a signifier of freedom and territorial acquisition for a national project whose historical predicates were the theft of land and labor rationalized and legitimated through the heuristics of race. Responses to the post-World War II interruption of white supremacy have sought to incorporate into the body politic non-white difference—both legally and culturally—through institutionalized practices of recognition and representation. The frictions of multicultural difference and recognition, slipping into and out of national belonging, and rubbing against the coarse violence of lives hierarchically valued, continues to generate much of the heat in our racial politics.
Is the nation-state, that pharmakon of political modernity, the only means by which to advance a project of minoritarian self-determination? Does it allow us the necessary space to script the value of difference otherwise? Those noisy diasporic traditions of study—Jewish, Black, and Palestinian alike—suggest caution in a hastily affirmative response.
In the churn of our pandemic times, identity keeps calling. Identity’s promise of a “good night’s rest,” in Stuart Hall’s pithy phrase, provides reassurance when living through what Gramsci once termed “morbid symptoms” that arise between the no longer and the not yet (43). And yet, might holding fast to identity, defensively, reactively, also be a morbid symptom in its own right? Whether and how one’s own identity might animate solidarity has likewise resurfaced as a question in recent months. What these questions remind us of is that solidarity is no synonym for identity, equivalence, or similitude. Solidarity is a practice, an action, whose condition of possibility is the messy materiality of social difference, not its flattening. The vitality of solidarity is that it presumes difference. It requires difference, it is vitalized by difference. To predicate solidarity either on embracing identity or rejecting it is to foreshorten the capacity to think across difference. We refuse such resources for thought, which are, indeed, the conditions of possibility for thought, at our peril.
How, then, to enable difference to surface in our language and our ways of being?
Analogy continually proves to be one entry point. Analogy mediates. Analogy emphasizes resonance and similitude, without collapsing into identity. It provides a figure in the traditional rhetorical sense, to make sense differently. But the grammar of analogy is a rhetorically thin structure for meaning-making. To arrive at a moment analytically when one can compellingly state a social phenomenon is like another often requires holding at bay the confounding variables—the noise in the signal—of lives lived deeply and in relation to their own histories. Analogy is no more than an analytical tool with which to think. But it is also no less than that, for figures are powerful, and heuristics have truth effects.
For me, several questions arise when faced with the grammar of analogy: What are the historical conditions that have given rise to these particular ways of seeing relationally? How did they come to be infused with meaning? What do they make legible, visible, sensible? And then, what are the constellation of truth effects, the ripples across common sense, that such formulations incite? Questions like these are meant to contextualize analogy’s rhetorical force, even as they pry open space for critique.
Solidarity is a practice, an action, whose condition of possibility is the messy materiality of social difference, not its flattening. The vitality of solidarity is that it presumes difference. It requires difference, it is vitalized by difference.
As I have argued elsewhere, one ought to cast a critical lens on the romance/tragedy narrative of the Black-Jewish civil rights coalition. This coalition wielded analogies as part of its rhetorical arsenal. All too often those who employ this narrative retrospectively impose pat liberal nationalist frames onto a complex history that is wrought with contradictions and critical commitments that exceed this narrative’s terms of reference. Visions of national inclusion, monumental public action, and charismatic leadership are easy highlights in this tale, which are thought by some to then become quickly degraded by Black internationalist solidarity politics, robust critiques of capitalism and imperialism, and the question of Palestine. At the same time, one must consider carefully how Black-Palestinian solidarities have been forged and practiced, how they’ve been suffused with content that has changed over time, that likewise draw on analogical grammars that belie the noise of lives lived across difference.
Beyond analogy lies entanglement. Returning to the reckoning that Unetaneh Tokef for Black Lives prompts, nation-state sovereignty’s plural you reflects the racializing systems of value that give it meaning, and, crucially the entangled forms of sociality that trouble their terms of reference. Certainly solidarity as a practice of relation across difference is one such form. So too are more mundane entanglements. Jewish and Black are hardly mutually exclusive categories, in the United States or anywhere else. Debates persist about racial classification on the U.S. census among Arab, Iranian, and North African American communities who are counted as white. And the historical entanglement of Black and Palestinian freedom struggles, and Jewish involvement in these struggles, have offered political imaginaries beyond the exclusionary visions of Zionism and the cruel calculus of white supremacy. To flatten these histories into particular identitarian narratives unfolding in parallel cannot but seek to regulate who belongs where, forgetting again the noisy insights of our diasporic traditions. These entanglements have resonances, translations and touchpoints, iconographies and ideologies, that have brought these streams of thought and practice into a lived relation, reminding us that distinct communities with differentiated histories draw inspiration from one another, breathing together, apart, in relation across difference.