Frontiers Augmented highlights selected authors from our issues to create a means for deeper engagement with the content published in the Frontiers Journal. The most recent special issue Black Performance 42.1, edited by Frontiers Co-Editor Kimberly M. Jew, highlights author K. Allison Hammer Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, The Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies, Vanderbilt University.
“Jettisoned”: Angelina Weld Grimké and the Banning of Social Justice in U.S. Classrooms
In my article, “Blood at the Root”: Cultural Abjection and Thwarted Desire in the Lynching Plays and Poetry of Angelina Weld Grimké,” I explore a relevant connection for our time between Julia Kristeva’s and Grimké’s use of the term “jettison,” which means to abandon or discard in a dramatic and totalizing fashion. Grimké titled a short story “Jettisoned,” and she also explored the “jettisoning” effect of abjection in her play Rachel and in her homoerotic poetry. Kristeva uses “jettison” to describe the psychological action of abjection, the turning of another into a discarded object, which ensures the dominant subject’s survival. As Kristeva articulates, the paradox of “the jettisoned object,” such as a person who displays some form of difference, is that radical exclusion actually brings a subject closer to the collapse of meaning rather than its stabilization. Foreshadowing the protest movements of summer 2020, Kristeva writes that instead of guaranteeing the subject’s dominance, “from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master.” Despite its psychological futility, the phobic practice of “jettisoning” persists unabated today, as white, heteronormative society continues to cast out as unfit for citizenship and belonging Black and LGBTQ+ people living in the U.S.
Grimké wrote with obsessive repetition, from the perspective of the early twentieth century, on themes of lynching and anti-black violence and discrimination. However, she was also a closeted lesbian of color. As a Black lesbian, Grimké’s body existed beyond cultural comprehension, systematically “jettisoned” from the consciousness of both Black and white communities, and throughout her oeuvre, she gave literary form to this jettisoning, sometimes through absence. A holistic reading of her work suggests that racial and sexual differences were “jettisoned” as identifying markers which must be thrust aside – but yet still simultaneously exist – for white and heteronormative subjects to define themselves as “not that.” Feelings of internal and external outrage over lynching and unconsummated queer desire structure her work, strengthening these feelings’ terrifying but effective creative powers, as she addressed the genocidal effect of “jettisoning” on Black and LGBTQ+ lives.
In a similarly terrifying present, a contemporary comparison between lynching and police killings has been suggested, and in some cases directly articulated, in light of recent high-profile cases, as well as the murder of those not named in public discourse, but memorialized by the #SayHerName and #SayTheirNames projects. The logics of “jettisoning” are thus currently at play, as evident in the latest legal challenges to social justice teachings, which seek to ensure the survival of the white race by shoring up fictive boundaries of race, sex, and gender. Like playwrights Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Mary Burrill, Grimké was also an educator and thus she would be appalled by this smothering of historical truths. These bills deny public funding to schools attempting to dismantle white supremacy and white privilege. Defiant educators can lose their jobs, depending on the local attitudes toward what some are referring to, in a shocking historical reversal, as the new “woke mob.” The University of North Carolina’s recent denial of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, developer of the New York Times 1619 project, has sent shock waves through higher education, as a pervasive assault on anti-racist praxis seems more and more imminent. As in Grimké’s time, the state’s desire to jettison discussions of racism from public discourse obfuscates the systemic mechanisms that all but guarantee lower life chances for BIPOC communities, if not outright extermination. If education is in part the solution to systemic racism, then the effects of these actions are immeasurable.
Perhaps less visible are simultaneous legislative acts of violence against transgender people—various “bathroom bills,” bans on transgender athletes, and moratoriums on trans health care, particularly for trans youth, combine with attacks on LGBTQ+ education. In my home state of Tennessee, two separate bills have been introduced, one eliminating the teaching of systemic racism and the other severely curtailing LGBTQ+ topics in sex education, history, and literature. That these bills find LGBTQ+ literatures offensive may be shocking in 2021, but as Grimké understood, literature threatens by responding sensorially to history’s events and influences, getting us closer to the emotions motivating the desire to “jettison.”
These emerging laws and forms of censorship demonstrate in spectacular fashion the ongoing “theater” of abjection. They both straighten and whitewash the histories of slavery, Jim Crow, and Black Lives Matter, Stonewall and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, severing the connections among race, gender, and sexuality—neutralizing their constitutive force. As Grimké proposed in Rachel, abjection protects heteronormativity, cisnormativity and whiteness from the pollution of race, sex, and gender difference. These contemporary laws and forms of oppression, invoked in the name of religion and morality, maintain the logic of abjection by hemming in and thrusting aside the reality of bodies in the streets, killed by police and “ordinary citizens.” Exposure to death for the marginalized, including Black trans women who have the lowest life chances among LGBTQ+ groups, meanwhile becomes secretly integrated into modern life, rendering such losses both shocking and ordinary. In her time and our own, this kind of violent thrusting aside leads, paradoxically, to the return of what is most feared, offering the reality that the Other cannot be killed and that the abject ultimately lives inside of oneself.
As a result of society’s racial, sexual, and literary jettisoning, despair was the most “prominent mood” in Grimké’s life and writing, While positive societal changes have developed, resulting from activist resistance, the processes of abjection that characterized her time threaten, once again, to make despair this century’s prominent mood for the marginalized. Like Grimké, scholars, artists and activists must continue to give structure and form to the jettisoning effects of abjection, refuse the temptation to fight oppression through a singular axis, and to vocalize, again and again, that exposure to death and the silencing of the truth are anything but ordinary.
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 2.
K.Allison Hammer Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, The Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies, Vanderbilt University