Reading and Resistance: Re-visiting The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense in Politically Turbulent Times

by: , April 5, 2018

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and in the wake of his election in November 2016, many American citizens actively allied themselves with the notion of resistance, by means of marching, volunteering, campaigning, advocating and educating. In solidarity with this ever-growing unofficial and collective movement, numerous online feminist platforms such as Wear Your Voice, Bitch Media, Bustle (to name but a few) have actively provided a space in which to discuss these matters, as well as give access to important information fundamental to the nature of a loose coalition. A central component of this resistance, thus far, has been outreach: that is, the making accessible of literature and writing, both as wellsprings of inspiration, but also as tools for galvanising collective action and activism. 

In response to the current political climate in America, whose central legislative power openly threatens to erode access to healthcare, abortion and to diminish the rights of LGBTQ communities and whose multifaceted racism and bigotry has instigated deep divisions within the American public and propelled nation-wide hate crimes, feminist platforms have supplied comprehensive and organised reading lists on topics central to public socio-political discourse in order to fortify and shore up current debates. Certain topics and concerns that are at the forefront of recommended reading lists that are in wide circulation are: black feminism, intersectional feminism, queer literature, refugees, Afrofuturism, YA novels for the young activist and, most topically, witches (a nomenclature that has loomed large of late during the ongoing #MeToo movement). These reading lists feature a wealth of urgent new material that has been written and published under the conditions and context of Trump-era politics, but they also include a plethora of established studies that have transcended their own cultural, social, and political histories. The recuperation and reconfiguration of these older texts within the contemporary political moment has been an essential part of a movement pushing back against a climate that, on a daily basis, seeks to supplant access to knowledge with ‘alternative truths’ alongside a nefarious condemnation of serious journalism as ‘fake news’. In such an environment: knowledge is, indeed, power. What we read and how we read is, perhaps now more than ever, a political act.

By incorporating both academic and non-academic material, these reading lists actively work against traditional notions of hierarchies of knowledge and help us to question the ways in which we choose to educate, amuse and inform ourselves: this is not a minor issue in such a politically fractious moment as the one in and through which we are living.  Although these lists encourage a parity amongst texts, then, the process of revisiting academic texts that have the facility to disrupt and critique hegemonic cultures and coterminous norms and ideals is vital to, in particular, feminist forms of political activism.

Kara Keeling’s first monograph The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (2007), which has had a profound effect on Film Studies, African American Studies and Queer theory since its release, is a crucial text within this context. Keeling’s book asserts that cinema, and its processes, have had a powerful effect on twentieth century’s anti-capitalist Black Liberation movements based in the United States. Taking her cue from Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the cinematic—the notion that cinema works machinically beyond the confines of a moving-image tied to a specific space and therefore is a form of production intrinsic to the reproduction of social reality itself—Keeling describes and argues how the modality of cinema has been instrumental in shoring up, if not creating, the very structures that perpetuate racism, homophobia, and misogyny, whilst denying its spectator the possibility of accessing other images and, thus, ways of knowing. By focusing on the image and representation of the black femmea figure who is systematically absented from dominant visual culturesKeeling speculates how the image of the black femme can subvert the structures of hegemonic cinema, by making the viewer visibly aware of the possibility of alternative social configurations.

Keelings monograph is axiomatic in exposing cinemas hegemonic strategies, and discussing classical/dominant cinemas notoriously vexed relationship with gender, sexuality and blackness. Such texts are clearly vital to revisionist and feminist approaches to film history (as a history of erasure and violence), but also on a broader scale to both discussions within critical film studies and discourses of intersectionality and representation within mainstream media outlets.

The Witchs Flight begins by directing the reader’s attention to the historical synchronicity of the invention and institutionalisation of cinema in the early twentieth century and American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Boi’s shocking announcement in 1903 that ‘the problem with the twentieth century is the problem of the colo[u]r line.’ (Keeling 2007:1) Keeling marks this moment out as the focal point from which her argument proceeds; that is, she elaborates on how the systemic mechanisms of racism, and by extension the socioeconomic interests of racism, conflict and interact with the specific operations and concerns of cinema. Thus, Keeling also opens up the possibility to interrogate critically how the ratiocinations of racism have lent themselves to the organisation (and disorganisation) of anti-capitalist movements fighting for Black Liberation.

 

Keeling elaborates on how the systemic mechanisms of racism, and by extension the socioeconomic interests of racism, conflict and interact with the specific operations and concerns of cinema.

 

Keeling makes a case for the suitability of the archetypal image of the black lesbian butch-femme as an exemplary sociality through which to examine and explore these arguments. Following a trajectory that she refers to as ‘the witch’s flight’ (Keeling 2007:1), Keeling begins with the theoretical explorations of cinema and cinematic processes, and explores their indisputable influence upon anti-capitalist, U.S.-based, Black Liberation movements, and concludes by arguing for the importance of the cinematic image of the black lesbian butch-femme precisely as an identity that symbolises an expression of life that was never meant to survive.

Keeling proposes that the black femme is a threshold creature, poised between cinematic reality and the Deleuzian radical elsewhere. The black femme offers herself as a perspective through which it is possible to examine the systems at work within life and alternative fabricated life, and where changes may be operational. Keeling defends the centrality of the black femme to her research as a figure that problematises racism, sexism, and homophobia. Furthermore, the black femme and the black butch-femme are figures that help to facilitate a connection between contemporary thought and blackness, gender, sexuality and visual culture; thus, these figures demand the acknowledgement of the very circumstances of their existence and, consequently, their ability to survive in terms of identity and community. The very question of the black butch-femme’s survival is prompted by her marginalised position across and within critical theories that catalyse subjects such as African American studies, gender and sexuality studies, women’s studies, queer theory, and film and media studies. Keeling argues that when the black butch-femme becomes visible, her presence disrupts these studies’ attempts of a critical understanding of the world, thus inviting a new reading or a revisionist reading.

Although Keeling adopts a Deleuzian framework in her study—namely, that cinema should be viewed as an extension of reality and not just a reflection or representation of it—she remains feminist in her approach and admits that she must ultimately betray Deleuze (a Deleuzian manoeuvre in and of itself, one might suggest), since his work has markedly little to say about race and gender. Therefore, The Witch’s Flight both works through established Deleuzian methodological patterns and works to subvert such tenets with the distinct intention of constructing a system, a vision, and identity of its own. In doing so, Keeling foregrounds the problematic hegemonic theoretical frameworks that permeate film studies, and argues for the necessity of their re-examination for the purposes of inclusivity and intersectionality.

The Witch’s Flight is structured on seven chapters and each is accompanied by a song. Each song, in turn, is invoked for the purpose of additional commentary on its accompanying chapter. By providing a soundtrack of sorts, Keeling attempts to conjure a feeling, a mood, an attitude, or sentiment that exceeds language. The select songs are meant to assist the reader in achieving a deeper and amplified understanding of the visceral intentions of the monograph: a style of scholarship which perhaps acts as a deliberate affront to the strict register and form of academic writing. The songs are essential to the effect and affect of Keeling’s argument.

For instance, ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’ by the R&B group Undisputed Truth warns its listener to be wary of appearance and to look askance at what is before them – to read again; the ‘slave song’ ‘Wade in the Water’ works to rationalise and aid the task of the Black Liberation movement, whilst Keeling investigates how a film like Sankofa extinguishes sexuality from its revolutionary subject. In her analysis of Sankofa, Keeling argues that the Black Liberation movement and common-sense black nationalism leave no space within their politics and political visions for the black lesbian femme. And yet by keeping the figure of the black femme on the outside, her longing is made visible; extending the discussion of the Black Liberation movement, Keeling references Nina Simone’s song ‘Four Women’ and shifts focus to the cinematic appearance of women in the Black Panther Party during the 1960s and 1970s in which once again, the black butch lesbian and black lesbian femme are, Keeling suggests, obviated from what she refers to as common-sense black nationalism; in her discussion of Pam Grier and the blaxploitation film, Nina Simone’s  ‘O-o-h Child’ aids Keeling’s argument that this subgenre of film pushes black nationalism into the mainstream, thus rendering it highly visible. Unlike the Black Panther Party films, then, blaxploitation films offer a glimpse into the social lives of the black lesbian butch and black lesbian femme, even if they are not able to explore them fully. It is here that the notion that the personal is political is perhaps most relevant. In the penultimate chapter of the book, ‘Ghetto Heaven’ by Family Stand complements Keeling’s analysis of Set It Off (1996); here Keeling examines the conditions under which the cinematic appearance of a black lesbian butch-femme sexuality might be made possible (as a figure through which possibilities and impossibilities may appear). By way of conclusion, Keeling explores the function of the black femme in Kasi Lemmons’ Eves Bayou (1997). Informed by Angela Davis’ critical essay Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves (1971), Keeling poses vital questions with regard to memory, gender, sexuality, visibility/invisibility, possibilities/impossibilities – for which the preceding chapters have paved the way. Keeling’s reading of Eves Bayou centres on survival, in particular the survival of figures who live outside of the confines of dominant visual culture and narratives and the labour that survival requires within a culture that is antithetic to the thriving and survival of those who refuse to live by rules that actively suppress and oppress with threats of violence and erasure.

While the current epicentre of political conflicts that spill into heated debates regarding gender, race, and sexuality are amplified in the United States of America, the ripple effect of these conversations is felt globally, especially as global politics moves increasingly and terrifyingly towards the far right. How we react, what we read, how we respond, what we believe and what we see are matters of ethical import. The  vital existence of a text such as The Witchs Flight, which stresses the importance of a politics of visibility in a cultural moment so saturated with racism, sexism and trans and homophobia, cannot be underestimated. In short, the book offers nothing less than a strategy of survival for those who cannot fit or refuse to fit: it demands that we keep pushing back.

Kara Keeling’s The Witchs Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense is part of Perverse Modernities, a series edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe.


REFERENCES

Keeling, Kara (2007), The Witchs Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense, London: Duke University Press.

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