By Tahmina Sobat and Vaishnavi Kollimarla
With AGITATE! Editorial Collective, Participants in Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) graduate seminar on Ways of Knowing: Approaches to Knowledge and Truth (Fall 2022), Contributors to Volume 4 of AGITATE! Journal, and other speakers at Volume 4 launch.1
Over these past two years, the authors in this volume, the editorial collective, and our communities across the world, have endured immense grief, devastation, and deepening precarity. This volume, “Breath and Death: COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and Virality,” grapples with the intersecting crises of settler colonialism, capitalism, and militarism that have been decimating people across the world throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It explores how the pandemic has collided with and exacerbated other plagues already reordering and stealing people’s lives. Taken together, the pieces of this volume offer powerful meditations on the intertwined, if dialectical, nature of breath and death, an imbrication that reverberated through George Floyd’s last words, uttered from beneath an officer’s knee: “I can’t breathe.”
—Opening excerpt from editorial, Volume 4—Breath And Death
The AGITATE! Editorial Collective, 2022
A day before the celebration of four years of AGITATE! Journal and its fourth volume—Breath And Death: COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, And Virality, [hereafter Volume]—our class discussion board was brimming with exchange of texts, songs, poems, and thoughts on the contributions of this Volume. Our classmate Thanzeel wrote in his weekly post, “[The Volume] weaves resistance stories, installations, and poetries of people, places, and togetherness . . . [the contributors linger] on the revolutionary commemoration of Bahujan scholars, migrants, and victims of police violence, the connection between the ecological infection and biography of a violent political state, AfroRuralFuturism, and ‘people who are out of place’ in a racial, viral, and military state…[It marks] the coming together of margins, marginals, and marginalized; celebration of Black liberation and utopia; and politics beyond the accepted dictums.” Thanzeel’s words convey the ways in which the Volume powerfully brings together the possibilities of collective healing, collective mourning, and transnational solidarities.
In this article, we build from the reflections and interventions that our classmates offered in our Fall 2022 seminar on Ways of Knowing: Approaches to Knowledge and Truth2. Both in the spaces of the classroom and the virtual celebration of the Volume hosted by AGITATE! Journal on September 30, 2022, we grappled with “the simultaneous necessity and violence of breathing in the midst of theft of breath.” The members of the seminar came from diverse backgrounds and experiences of cultures and languages. Thus, our understandings and engagements were constituted by different stories of oppression, marginalization, death, and resistance to the dominant systems of power. We joined the virtual event [hereafter Event] to mourn, celebrate, and resist together. As we listened to the words of strength and solidarity shared at the Event, we found ourselves becoming a part of each other’s journeys of resistance and resilience.
Imagining trans-communal solidarities through the work of AGITATE! and Volume 4
The texts, performances, art, and discussions that constitute the Volume—alongside the conversations among the contributors and collaborators in our graduate seminar—have inspired us to think deeply about the (im)possibilities of solidarities. Simultaneously, we also explore the different approaches through which dominant modes of knowing might be unsettled. Shifting the dominant ways of knowing can fundamentally change how we feel, resist, and insert ourselves in questions of inequalities and how we search for justice.
As we engaged with Volume 4, we asked—How do we create collective spaces to seek justice under the regimes of systemic oppression? What could we as activists, scholars, artists, in a university setting do to co-agitate for justice through these spaces, while navigating myriad forms of institutionalized oppression? In joining the Event, our class became part of a space where people across multiple geographies and epistemic locations moved with these questions. As we write, we think of those who face the possibility of death in every living moment because of imperialism, militarism, war, and invasion; and the systems of power that reproduce and remake everyday realities of caste, class, gender, race, ethnicity, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and able-bodiedness. The varied experiences of, and conversations around, pandemics, death, and devastation highlighted in the Volume and the Event push us to ask: what work do we want transnational solidarities to do today?
Transnational solidarities can be seen as relationalities and practices that defy the borders imposed by nation-states, colonization, imperialism, patriarchy, and capitalism—systems which mobilize militarization, wars, and the relentless production of social inequalities and conflict. Feminist struggles have been at the forefront of recognizing the interconnectedness of these forces of oppression and resisting them in multiple forms. Transnational feminist solidarities—which have emerged in myriad moments and movements across the world in the past decades—underline the importance of working with, in, and through these ongoing struggles in which each of us are embedded. The antiwar activism of Women in Black in Israel and Serbia against occupation and genocide, women’s courts across the globe fighting gendered violence through alternative storytelling, the emergence of the Rhodes Must Fall movement as an anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggle in South Africa, and the activism of mothers of disappeared youth in South America and elsewhere in the world, are all potent examples of transnational feminist solidarities that addressed intertwined systems of oppression and inequality. Most recently, the cry of Jin, Jiyan, Azaadi on the streets of Iran ignited by the murder of Jina (Mahsa) Amini addressed not just freedom for women but also freedom from economic hardships brought about by western sanctions, marginalization of the minoritized, and police violence.
Transnational feminism offers a framework of resistance to the dominant white liberal multicultural nationalism’s co-optation of situated struggles in the name of women’s sameness or unity. Such problematic “solidarity” has often appropriated and co-opted the struggles rooted in specific contexts and histories under facile claims of global feminism and sisterhood leading to violent and long-term consequences. A particularly illustrative instance is the work of prominent US-based feminist organization, Feminist Majority, which misused the very idea of feminist solidarity in service of the US imperialist project in Afghanistan. Along with others, the organization supported the US war and invasion of Afghanistan under the guise of saving Afghan women from the Muslim fundamentalists’ abuse of women’s rights (Abu-Lughod, 2013). The twenty-year war that followed, destroyed Afghan women’s lives, their grassroots struggles, and their visions for equality and justice by ignoring the realities, differences, and multidimensionality of their histories. After August 15, 2021, when the country was surrendered to the Taliban once again, the pretense of solidarity with Afghan women also faded.
Acknowledging the violence that has taken place under the garb of global feminism and grappling with how hierarchies of power in these so-called feminist networks and spaces facilitated such misuse is a crucial part of envisioning transnational solidarities that can strengthen our struggles today. Further, we should continually problematize the ways in which these partnerships are either structured in favor of the powerful or completely co-opted by them. To interrogate the inherent power dynamics of these relationalities and to advance our deep commitment to the visions of transnational feminisms we employ the term “trans-communal solidarities.” We envision trans-communal solidarities as an idea that pushes us to recognize ourselves as a part of communities, entangled together in ongoing struggle, and always striving to move towards collectively envisioned justice. Trans-communal solidarities reiterate the visions of transnational feminism and at the same time question their corruption and co-option in favor of powerful actors. What we wish to offer through trans-communal solidarities is a praxis: of refusing the impulse to act in the name of the collective or community in ways that chiefly allow the privileged to perform actions in order to feel good and gratified in the face of crisis and discomfort. This is not a call for inaction. Rather, trans-communal solidarities as praxis is an invocation to action that is grounded in radical collaboration, critical reflection, and recognition of the complex nature of violence in the communities and struggles that we claim to be a part of. A fuller realization of the visions of transnational feminist solidarities can only happen by centering the community—a collective of humans and more-than-humans–committed to each other for the well-being of all. Here we draw upon an understanding of community offered by Indigenous scholars and thinkers such as Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013), that does not center on humans but focuses on the cohabitation and interdependence of all beings. She encourages us to think of the world as a neighborhood of humans and nonhuman beings, in which all have unique roles, and gifts to offer. It is through understanding and respecting these roles that we can live in harmony with the Earth (Kimmerer, 2013, p.347). We learn so much about interdependence when she shares the stories of nonhuman relatives such as land:
So much has been forgotten, but it is not lost as long as the land endures and we cultivate people who have the humility and ability to listen and learn. And the people are not alone. All along the path, nonhuman people help. What knowledge the people have forgotten is remembered by the land. The others want to live, too (Kimmerer, 2013. p.369).
The coming together of the AGITATE! Editorial Collective, the Editorial Board, and the contributors of the Volume at the Event was one manifestation of the values, commitments, and grapplings that we are calling trans-communal solidarities. Through polyvocal poems, essays, art installations, and performances, the Volume helped us see and feel the possibilities of a world that, “is a world I want to be in, and hope that it is the only world that my students would know.”3 This world was one built on radical love, care, vulnerability, and shared commitment to un-disciplining oneself, in the search for justice.
Co-creating and co-imaging this world requires a constant interrogation of dominant knowledge systems as well as an articulation of alternative “ethics, aesthetics, and poetics of knowledge and knowledge production,” as stated in the co-authored reflection of AGITATE! Editorial Collective members, Keavy McFadden, Sara Musaifer, and Richa Nagar. One can see multiple examples of such labors in the Volume. For instance, in Confluenc(Ing) Race and Place: AfroRuralFuturism as a Framework For Reading Solidarity, authors Sean Cameron Golden and Nick Kleese challenge the oppressive “images, rhetorics, and stories that project rural geographies as white and urbanity as Black.” They challenge the oppressive intertwined projections of race and geographies, and question the dominant aesthetics of knowledge production. They deploy a chain of emails, lingering thoughts, experiences, stories, and a multimodal syllabus to explore the concept of “AfroRuralFuturism”. Other contributors co-create spaces to discuss the “historic erasures of Blackness and practices of discrimination in the SWANA region and its diaspora”; explore “the long and complex history of solidarity between . . . Kashmir and Palestine,” in discussions organized by the Imagining Transnational Solidarities Research Circle (ITSRC). Such trans-communal solidarities share alternate visions of solidarity rooted in community, shared histories, and struggles for liberation from occupation, racism, and imperialism.
The many moments of gratitude, learning, unlearning, and relearning that unfolded during the Event made it a space of trans-communal solidarity for us. New relationships were being forged through the sharing of personal experiences, journeys, and visions of justice amongst people who cared about seeding long-term and meaningful solidarities. Everyone present in the space was collectively grieving, mourning, healing, and challenging the disciplining that suffocates our growth as ethical beings on this planet. Participants’ reflections at the Event highlighted AGITATE!’s vision of creating transnational solidarities and how people have connected to it.
“Unsettling is: to interrogate and disrupt norms to create spaces for different ways of being, creating, learning, struggling, and living.”
—Richa Nagar, Volume Contributor and Editorial Collective Member
“AGITATE! is: a “space to actively learn, mobilize and create […], a meeting ground for curiosities, struggles, dreaming, grappling, and creating which dares to question everything mainstream.”
—Sara J. Musaifer, Editorial Collective Member
“Mourning Khalamuni through this writing in AGITATE! renewed new pathways to care for the living…Between the flood plains (of the Turag river in Bangladesh), the northeastern forests, and the orchards (of the soul-fire farm—an afro-indigenous community farm that created a memorial orchard and invited people to dedicate a tree to their ancestors) and AGITATE!’s digital pages, Khalamuni’s memories found a home.”
—Efadul Huq, Volume Contributor and Editorial Collective Member
“There is something about AGITATE!—the journal, the project, the journey, that talks to this idea of loving and caring about people you have never met and places you have never been to.”
—Antonàdia Borges, Editorial Board Member
These moments were powerful reminders that to be in solidarity is to consciously and intentionally find possibilities of journeying together. It is a commitment to deep collaboration, where we learn from tensions instead of attempting to erase them. It involves unsettling knowledge in ways that creates space for more: to mourn, to honor and remember our ancestors, to love and care radically, to dream and move together, to critically understand ourselves, and to stand with each other even when our bodies and the struggles that it is part of, might be thousands of miles apart.
The Volume expands our understanding of how and where transnational or trans-communal feminist solidarities can emerge and or exist. The coming together of writers, activists, and artists, whose lives and work are embedded in diverse struggles and contexts, creates the space for solidarity and community with one another. These communities across lands, waters, virtual pages, and Zoom rooms, inherently rebel against dominant ways of being and knowing. The Volume and its intimate celebration created possibilities of imagining and envisioning trans-communal solidarities that break with supra-national organizations, NGOs, nation-states, and even academia. These possibilities have the power to birth trans-communal solidarities that undo pervasive hierarchies, co-option, harm, and violence.
While reflecting on our responses to the Volume in the Ways of Knowing seminar, we were struck by the power of performances, stories, poetry, and art in dismantling hegemonic ways of knowing. The multi-genre pieces engaged all our senses and evoked long-forgotten memories. They made us feel and transported us to experiences of struggle and resilience. For instance, Wakinyan Lapointe’s response to Autopsy and State Violence: Implications in the Death Investigation of George Floyd by Deondre Smiles, expressed his rage, “I can remember hearing about the death of George Floyd and the feeling of everyone in Minneapolis waiting for the causes of his death to be announced. Later [I remember] learning how arguments were being made in support of the police officer’s actions that day, and feeling angered by it.”
Parallelly, Luiza pointed out how the reverberations of Floyd’s murder extended far beyond the United States:
I remember when I was in Brazil, and the movement caused by the death of George Floyd reached all the media and news vehicles in my country. A week before George Floyd’s death, João Pedro, a 14-year-old, was shot by police in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at his cousin’s house. More than 70 bullets marked the inside walls of the small room where the children were playing. After João Pedro was shot, the police officers took his body away without informing his family where they were taking him . . . . I also remember that the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death caused a great commotion in Brazil among various social groups . . . [It] brought many Black people to the streets asking for police accountability and a stop to police power abuse and gun violence … almost every month, we have a case of brutal death caused by police violence in Brazil against marginalized groups. The upper-middle-class people living outside the favelas are already familiar with this news. But it took a murder such as Floyd’s . . . in the United States to have the support of the privileged social classes in the protests on the Brazilian streets.
Smile’s attention to a less discussed aspect of police brutality—the contestations around ‘cause of death’—invoked in Wakinyan the pain of waiting collectively to hear a piece of news from the authorities in Minneapolis, a piece of news that everyone knew would hurt and disappoint the protestors further. Luiza, by comparison, was reminded of the anger and sadness of many Brazilians about their wait for the privileged social classes to join the protests against police brutality.
Deondre’s powerful meditation on the aftermath of Floyd’s murder as well as the responses of our classmates show the heaviness and pain of impatiently waiting and hoping that THIS time might bring some form of justice. Abdulrahman Bindamnan’s (Bin’s) reflection echoed Luiza’s passion to agitate against brutal systems:
The oppressions are collectively felt in the streets of Minneapolis (in the case of Floyd’s murder) and in Yemen (with American drones bombing civilians). It is against this backdrop that there is a need for a global response because these injustices are not local in their manifestation; they negatively affect the West and the East.
Bin calls our attention to how systems of oppression across the world, particularly those connected to militarized violence, are tied to one another. Therefore, communities from across the globe must come together to envision, think, live, and to realize, what he articulates as: “the notion that we have to seek justice for all.”
Smile’s essay calls upon us to remember and mourn people from our communities, as well as others who are victimized by the same systems of oppression. He writes, “although justice eventually came for George Floyd himself, when cases like this arise yet again, we must continue to push for accountability, transparency, and the dignity of the dead. Through this, we can push for true justice and liberation for Black, Indigenous, and other lives of color, both in life and death.” Ultimately, this essay pushes us to feel, ponder, and build solidarities across borders: to agitate collectively against the structures of violence behind the untimely and unfair deaths in all our communities.
In the conversation, Politically Engaged Art Amid Pandemic and Protest – Part I organized by ITSRC and published in the Volume, Ritika Ganguly discusses how her work was affected by the sounds of the various protests and pandemics that were taking place in India and the United States. Being in spaces that were agitating in different ways, the collection of all the sounds of protests “monopolized” her thoughts and work. Similarly, in The Passage Memorial, selma banich and Marijana Hameršak meditate on a collection of thirty-six memorial portraits of people who have died on the migrant trail in the Balkans. Handcrafted with red and black thread on a botanically dyed fabric, these portraits “form a monument on the move dedicated to those who have died at the borders and in the name of borders.” Through weaves, knits, and dyes and the remnants of memories of people once alive, this piece mourns and resists even as it weaves an act of collective remembering. The authors write, “Hope, excitement, and joy were deeply woven into our pieces of fabric, which were soon to be embroidered with the contours of the faces belonging to people who are no longer with us.”
Efadul Huq’s eulogy to their aunt, Khalamuni, was also a form of collective remembering. As they put it in their reflections alongside their reading of the poem at the Event: “Mourning Khalamuni through this writing in AGITATE! renewed new pathways to care for the living.”
The act of memorializing through writing or weaving becomes a way of extending one’s struggles, losses, and pains to the world such that it is no longer an individual loss. In his process, we touch and engage with many other entangled lives and struggles, to annihilate the similarly entwined structures of oppression. Solidarities are forged as we interbraid our struggles and move with one another, acquainting ourselves with the others’ pains, rage, and struggles. Vishal Jamkar’s piece Inventing a Bahujan Grammar: In Memory of Abhay Xaxa which begins with Xaxa’s powerful poem, I Am Not Your Data (2011), exemplifies how such an entanglement with another’s lives, losses, and struggles becomes the basis for solidarity. In the essay, which honors Xaxa’s philosophy and activism, Jamkar talks about how Xaxa’s work inspired and helped him grapple with his identity, and shaped his understanding of justice for indigenous communities in India although he never had the opportunity to meet Xaxa.
Vishal’s reading of I Am Not Your Data and the commitments and inspiration he derives from it, echoed with the reflections of other contributors at the Event. Suzanne Chew, whose poem Basic Demographic Questions is featured in the Volume, highlighted how Xaxa’s poem inspired her to reflect on the legacies of Western academic research that invisiblizes indigenous brilliance. She asks:
They’re just basic demographic questions
You need it for good research. Yet –
What right have we to ask,
without trust and relationship?
Vishal and Suzanne raise questions about the data upon which traditional research rests. Suzanne highlights the impossibilities of answers and the violence that accompanies the use of standardized questions as a part of traditional research. Vishal elucidates the ontological and epistemic violence that underlie research ‘on’ Adivasi communities. He writes, “Data rarely explores what [Adivasis]already have, what they are capable of, or what they would like to have. It … cannot capture their political vision.”
These entanglements are similar to what Antonádia calls “bridges” in her remarks at the Event. Reflecting on how Richa Nagar became a bridge, Antonádia gave an example of a talk that Richa gave at the University of Brasilia in 2019. In preparation of that talk, Richa shared with Antonádia and her students Abhay Xaxa’s poem, I Am Not Your Data, which Antonádia translated into Portuguese as Não Sou Seu Dado, for the audiences at Brasilia.4 In this way, Xaxa also became a bridge between Adivasi students in India and students in Brazil who were immersed in struggles against institutional violence at universities. The aforementioned commitments bear witness to the creative labors and political vision that go into making transnational bridges and how these creations strengthen, deepen, and connect seemingly disparate struggles and movements.
Katayoun Amjadi’s piece, This is Not an Eggplant, however, complicates the multiple ‘WEs’ in this web of connections. The Village Potter Reprise (Eggplant), 2021, shows Katayoun making ceramic eggplants. She draws our attention to how these eggplants appear to be mere objects. Yet, like books, “they need to be held, read, and used so that they can tell stories.” As the video takes us through multiple objects, Katayoun narrates further: “Folktales tell us about the practice of ritual, of doing everything forty times…making multiples and pondering about our collective lives and the tangled web of stories.” Katayoun asks, “How can an individual imagine otherwise when the collective is turning aside? Why is this ‘we’ so disparate? What can bring us together? Art? Poetry? Protest?” Her work reminds us of the dance between the “Is” entangled with the “Wes” (Nagar 2019). It pushes us to think of the challenges of forging solidarities in shifting and deeply divisive political climates. Pedram Baldari’s performative piece The Thermal Body Signature of a Second Class Citizen, Choking on His Own Saliva compliments Katayoun’s work. Through a video recording that he created with a thermal camera, Baldari explores “those under layered realities that are not visible to the eyes. They are flowing through the veins and circulating with our blood, passing down through generations.” Pedram’s reflection that “the brown and the black body affected by the pandemic and the epidemic generational subjugating efforts by global and regional colonial powers,” speaks to Katayoun’s assertion that “words stick to your body.” Together they demonstrate how solidarity, movements, and struggles are deeply complicated by the ways our bodies are differentially marked and located—as immigrant, queer, woman, disabled, Muslim, and so on. To be in solidarity with another is to grapple with these legacies and its continuing manifestations in the form of pain, loss, and discomfort.
In her weekly post, our classmate Rachel Bergman noted the multiple levels on which Pedram’s piece unsettled her: “it’s unsettling for a viewer to watch, and it shows directly the literal and metaphorical pain [Pedram] and others who are treated as second-class citizens experience in unfamiliar places. The piece was hard for me to watch, but important. In order to unsettle dominant ways of knowing, we must sit with the pain and discomfort that they create in the world.”
The collections of sounds of protest,5 entanglements, and invocations enacted by the contributors and AGITATE! Editorial Collective members at the Event built a space of trust and vulnerability. This encouraged Tahmina to share what she was going through on the day of the Event. Tahmina recalls:
On that day, I was mourning the loss and death of the “Girls of Kaaj.” On September 30, 2022, a horrific bomb explosion at Kaaj Educational Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed more than 50 people and left more than 80 other innocent Hazara students, most of them girls, wounded. The attack happened as they were taking a university entrance exam. Hearing people talk about producing knowledge from the margins, and sharing their experiences of suffering and marginalization at the Event made me feel like I could be vulnerable and share the pain of loss and rage that I was experiencing. I read the names of the victims of the incident as an act of re-membering, and keeping their memories alive; an act of protesting the systems of oppression that violently made those girls and their dreams of higher education into just another news headline that will be replaced by something else the next day. I invited the AGITATE! community gathered at the Event to remember with me their names, presence, resistance; their dreams of learning and changing their future even as all doors closed for them when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban on August 15, 2021. Reading their names was the most painful thing that I could do at that moment (and even as I write of this after months have passed, my heart aches ). On that day, however, I needed to keep my eyes open and my voice up to read the names of the girls of Kaaj. Not just them, but the ones that I know will come in the future—a fear that has come true with the Taliban officially denying women their right to education and employment on December 20, 2022. However, I believe that being part of powerful spaces of trans-communal solidarity such as the one created by AGITATE! allows us hope of resisting various forces of oppression.
A relationality is born through intimate moments of vulnerability where people come together to mourn, remember, and honor. These relationships do not require grand gestures or big organizational support to happen. Rather, their power lies in identifying and living the possibilities of hope through deep trans-communal solidarities that can be felt, deepened, and nurtured. Vaishnavi too, recalls:
Tahmina’s act of naming the girls who were killed as they demanded their right to education teared me up. It reminded me of the protests at my University in India during my Master’s degree in response to the institution and the state snatching away scholarships of my classmates and friends from oppressed communities, effectively shutting the gates of the University to them. In Afghanistan, the Taliban use bomb blasts or decrees to kill or ban young girls from pursuing their education. In India, the institutions use the strategies of ‘merit’ as Vishal articulates in his piece, to “discredit the Bahujan community.”
In his essay, Vishal explains how the idea of ‘merit’ in India operates in the context of access to higher education and employment. It emerges from an “epistemology formulated by the privileged section[s] in academia and public life who have had easy access to institutions of knowledge-making.” Such an idea of merit invisiblizes the historic and ongoing marginalization, dispossession, and degradation of Adivasi and oppressed caste communities in India. Thus, we cannot engage with scholars such as Xaxa only by “reading, referencing, and quoting.” Instead, Vishal insists that embodying, breathing, and living to challenge the status quo has to be part of an ethical engagement with the work of Bahujan and Adivasi scholars. Therefore, the labor of being in trans-communal solidarity would entail continuous “unlearning and relearning the world through concepts such as Adivasiyat.” For the dominant castes and “over-consuming classes,” this work would include examining one’s complicity, and working towards undisciplining casteist and colonized minds and bodies through a constant process of meaningful interrogation and engagement.
Vishal, Katayoun, and Pedram, all call upon us to delve into our complicities as we receive, make meaning, and pass stories of the communities we belong to, work with, in, and for. They ask us to think about how unsettling the dominant ways of knowing would fundamentally change how we understand the work of solidarity. These ways of being in solidarity demand going beyond shallow performative political acts, and allowing the multiple struggles, journeys, and stories to shape the way one moves, feels, and creates in this world. This was also highlighted in AGITATE! Editorial Collective’s sharing at the beginning of the Event where Richa Nagar described the review process of the journal thus, “We learn from the ridges and furrows that come from leaving things unresolved in their complexities. We allow each new contribution to reshape what we imagine our process and relationships to be.”
The openness to change, unlearning, and relearning was also reflected in our classmates’ responses. For instance, Tahmina’s reflections on her political labors as a woman of color, inspired Joan Barreto to write, “It is a bit paradoxical that I enjoy reading your reflections even though they are always emotionally difficult…I personally believe that feeling uncomfortable and touched by these social crises is necessary to develop empathy…I’m afraid of looking like a ‘fake savior’ fighting for women’s rights when I haven’t even experienced anything like the pain and injustice women do. In fact, as a man, I have benefited from such injustice. I would like to …contribute to acknowledging and repairing the harm we have exerted on women across nations and generations.”
Joan grapples with the stickiness and responsibilities that come with receiving stories from people and communities in marginalized locations. Further, in the context of overlapping and entangled webs of location and systems of power within which we live, there are often no pure victims and saviors, oppressed and oppressors, and no easy ways to identify them. Wakinyan’s response to Aida Shahghasemi’s Politically Engaged Art Amid Pandemic and Protest (ITSRC) confronts the murky realities of differential locations, responsibility, and authenticity in the work of solidarities. Talking about how the West sees her only as a “Middle Eastern person” rather than as an individual with multiple identities, Aida says, “The self-exotification happens when we fall for what the West seeks to see from us . . . we even label ourselves as the spokesperson about the sufferings of individuals all over the world.” Wakinyan wrote, “Aida speaks about showing up authentically as a musician and as an artist not as the West sees her, but in a way that does not exploit the plights of her people overseas.” He draws from her articulation of artistic responsibility to people, to think about the ethical responsibility of researchers and scholars towards the communities they work with. He asks, “How can I be sincere and authentic in voicing some of the issues and be accountable to my community in doing so?”
These questions were also echoed by Suzanne Chew at the Event: “As a privileged newcomer to Canada, what is my role in truth and reconciliation?…I have been guided to carry out my research in specific ways…being told to ask certain questions in certain ways to do ‘good research’…and I felt this tension when I was in communities that were like my families. Growing up in Asian cultures, this isn’t how we ask questions or how we engage with these questions.” Chew’s poem extends the question:
How do I ask,
What formal educational level have you attained?
When the learning that matters
can’t be measured in grades –
this deep love and wonderment,
that lets you think like the goose
you are harvesting.
Suzanne, Aida, and Wakinyan remind us of the need to reflect and question the ‘normative’ ways of moving, knowing, and being as we learn to ethically relate to one another. What would it mean to engage responsibly with the multiple locations of privilege and oppression that each of us holds? What might it mean to internalize that this work is never static? It changes and moves as we move, and as positions, struggles, and political climates shift.
Sean Cameron Golden and Nick Kleese also grapple with these questions in Confluence(Ing) Race And Place. They assert that “by transforming a noun (confluence) into a verb, we postulate that place and race are not only active social constructions but ones that can be leveraged through specifically articulated frameworks to imagine a collective futurity and solidarity.” Through the framework of confluence, the authors affirm their belief in “critical conversations between unlike communities as a way for young people to build solidarity.” They reiterate the importance of stories, building empathy, and collaborations to unsettle oppressive narratives especially in times when the possibilities and potential for co-creation is circumvented by myriad forces.
Our class discussion board was one such space of confluence, questioning, and unsettling. Joan asked in his weekly post, “Have you thought about the last words or sentence you will say before YOU die? Try to do it right now, perhaps as an act of solidarity with victims of transnational crises that are dying as you read these reflections…I got very uncomfortable with that question, especially when I thought those words could potentially be ‘I can’t breathe’. In the face of these crises we can still breathe, and we can do it together, as I try to use my breath to empathize with those that are losing it.” Joan reminds us of the responsibility that comes with the act of breathing and of those who are constantly, systemically being deprived of breath. Given how our bodies are controlled, many of us won’t have the ‘choice’ of thinking of our last words. Jordan Starck’s poem, Healthy Living highlights how many of us are silenced even in our living moments; how breathing and screaming can be inseparable for people living under relentless violence and oppression. Jordan’s poem is a ‘scream’ against the systems of injustice that control and violate Black bodies. Jordan writes:
The conditions for receiving treatment read in no uncertain
terms that a respirator will only be provided should
I agree to swallow my voice and contestations
along with each inhalation.
They pass me a pen to cement my compliance,
but I do not forget those first formative memories
of how I came into this world
and learned to breathe
with a scream.
And so I lift up my voice and I rise
And I raise up my voice and I rise
And I scream and I scream and I scream
until heaven rings as a liberty bell,
Trying desperately to bring about a resounding freedom,
and a fuller life,
despite the official caution that I might black out.
Pausing. To Mourn, Remember, and Grieve Together
Let us pause now. To ponder what it means to birth or shape conversations, these interactions between “unlike communities,” that enable openings, beginnings, and screams. We go back to the questions, tensions, and emotions that the pieces in the Volume inspired and moved us with…What was it that made this moving possible?
The contributors mourn, grieve, rage, honor, and remember. Their dreams of just futures bear a deep awareness of their own positionalities and geographies. AGITATE!Editorial Collective also shared how their vision and journey for justice strive to unsettle dominant understandings of poetics, aesthetics, knowledge, and knowledge production. At the core of the collective’s movement, is a deep recognition of the “inevitable interconnectedness with others” (Nagar, 2019, p. xi). All the pieces, then, are connected and all call for an opening, a call to journey together rather than moving towards fixed ends, resonating deeply with Richa’s work on the praxis of ‘radical vulnerability’. Richa writes:
This praxis of radical vulnerability opens up the possibility of a togetherness ‘without guarantees’: it does not seek to know prior to the journey where the shared paths will lead us but it commits to walking together with the co-travelers over the long haul in the struggles and dreams that we all have chosen to weave, unweave, and reweave together. (Nagar 2019, p. 30).
Building transnational solidarity—based on radical vulnerability and a commitment to unsettling—can open up a path to connect with, care for, and understand (with) each other in ways that will fundamentally change our ways of approaching what we call knowledge. This work requires us to re-imagine and reclaim how we listen to one another and how we share and receive experiences and struggles. It requires all of us, including those of us who are in academia, to unsettle hegemonic ways of articulating our agitation, and to co-create modes of knowing, caring, and being in solidarity.
We immersed ourselves in the Volume and witnessed the coming together of the transnational AGITATE! community. This immersion, witnessing, reflection, and writing revealed to us an alternate mode of transnational feminist solidarity: a trans-communal articulation of togetherness and collectivity shaped by a radical praxis of caring, mourning, protesting, and knowing. To be in trans-communal solidarity is to be entangled with communities, even as one is forever learning to become an ethical co-traveler in community. Such a journey asks that we continuously evolve in and through our entanglements with others and interrogate our location(s), desires, and movements as we push collectively towards just futures. Such solidarity navigates hope, despair, pain, happiness, and sticky spaces; it includes un-translatable thoughts and emotions expressed and received as part of being radically vulnerable; and it demands ongoing and difficult reflection and sometimes undoing and redoing of the very processes that it was invested in. All of this means always learning to transcend political, social, and individual borders.
One of our classmates, Nada Mohamed, shared an Arabic song with the class called God of Revolution. Terez Sliman, Tamer Nafar, and Marwan Makhoul sang:
الهي، الهي أعِدْني إلى الصّحراءِ
الهي، وامْحُ الحدودَ الّتي علَّبتني، وشوّهتْ وجهَ المدى
Oh Lord, Oh Lord…take me back to the desert,
Oh Lord, erase the borders that have boxed me in
And defaced the horizon.
Nada added, “Borders box us, restrict us, and kill us.”
And so we end this reflection with this refrain: We must forge our solidarities beyond the borders of nationhood, caste, geographies, and individualism. Indeed, that is the only way we can truly come together to make spaces for every cry, laugh, smile, and word that is erased; and to mark and honor every protest and performance that is crushed or invisibilized within the concrete walls of our oppressive systems.
- Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” Harvard University Press, 2013.
- Breath And Death: COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, And Virality. 2022. AGITATE! Journal 4.
- Kimmerer, Robin. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed editions.
- Nagar, Richa. 2019. Hungry Translations: Relearning the world through radical vulnerability. University of Illinois Press.
- Xaxa, Abhay. 2011. “I Am Not Your Data” Round Table India.
- Xaxa, Abhay. 2020. “I Am Not Your Data.” Translated To “Não Sou Seu Dado” By Antonádia Borges. AGITATE! Journal 2.
- This piece is an attempt to weave together the responses, reflections and conversations between our classmates: Thanzeel Nazer, Luiza Lucena, Joan Barreto Ortiz, Wakinyan Lapointe, Nada Mohamed, Rachel Bergman, Abdulrahman Bindamnan (Bin), and Angel Swann. All of us were responding to AGITATE!’s Volume 4 published in Spring 2022.
- The seminar was taught by Richa Nagar for the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, USA.
- Phrase used by Ruth Nicole Brown in her presentation at the Event. ↩︎
- This translation was later published, in Xaxa’s lifetime and with his permission, on the pages of AGITATE! ↩︎
- A phrase used by Ritika Ganguly in Politically Engaged Art Amid Pandemic and Protest – Part I, part of Imagining Transnational Solidarities: Speaking Across Divides series byITSRC in AGITATE! Volume 4. ↩︎