By Tav Nyong’o
A question has been ringing through my ears this past week, growing louder with my every attempt to brush it away.
“Who the fuck made you master?”* It was a question asked, no shouted, in a moment of despair and righteous discontent. An angry, no, an uncivil question, and to that extent, a question without any answer in a civilized society whose underside, as Walter Benjamin well knew, contains countless barbarisms.
“Who the fuck made you master?”
The questioner has been mocked, admonished, even physically threatened for daring to ask it. In this era of viral publicity, bullies morph into the bullied and back again with dizzying speed. We feel constantly pushed around and always on our last nerve. But we should always stop and pay careful attention to those moments when someone — a young black woman in this instance — is threatened with physical retribution for asking an inconvenient question.
The questioner’s location as one of the privileged few at Yale University should not distract us from the relevance of her demand for the rest of us. We all have parents, bosses, teachers, authority figures charged with our safety and well-being. Many of us are fortunate to receive the care and support that is promised and expected. But all of us know or have experienced situations where an authority figure has grievously failed. It is disorienting and difficult, which is to say it takes tremendous courage and conviction, to stand up to that authority figure and simply ask where their authority comes from. Democracy, real democracy, always begins with a question that cannot but provoke a conflict with the status quo: who made you the boss of me?
I could only bring myself to watch the viral video in question this morning. I felt I already knew its content and, even more, I knew how it would be received by an anti-black, anti-woman, anti-intellectual culture. I knew the clip could not possibly provide a full or accurate picture of the black and native student struggle at Yale, and that it would be all the more of a misleading caricature for being a decontextualized fragment of something that did indeed happen.
But when I did finally watch it, the angst with which the questioner spoke those words moved me in a way that I was unprepared for. What few seem to notice or give credence to was what it had cost her to lose her temper in that way, to meet the establishment defenders of “free speech” with her own brand of “fearless speech.” What was that cost, I wanted to know? And aren’t we all now, because of that cost she paid, in her debt?
Black studies as a the critique of Western civilization teaches us to ask: What do we owe each other for the sacrifices we each are called upon to make to rebuke and repair this world? How can we — those of us who profess to educate — accept the student demand not only as a rebuke, which it certainly is, but also as a gift?
I am now glad the video has been seen by so many, not because it provides visual proof of a privileged millennial “crybully” asking to be protected from free speech and intellectual inquiry, but because it forces again a question America keeps refusing to answer:
Do black lives matter? And, if they do, or if they should, don’t we have to immediately change everything about how a society and culture founded in white supremacy and settler colonialism continues operates?
How can any institution — a school, a corporation, an army, a police force, a prison — expect to continue along with business as usual after conceding that it is founded upon structural racism and colonial settlement?
And yes, who, exactly, made you master?
Black students in Missouri, South Africa, New Haven and beyond have in the past few weeks renewed the promise of a #BlackLivesMatter movement many of us feared was beginning to falter. Without conceding an inch on questions of police and vigilante violence and killings of black women, transgender black people, black men of all ages, these students have broadened the scope of concern from the moments of our dying to the days of our living. This is crucial for those of us who don’t want to live our lives in a constant state of mourning, even as we honor and remember our dead. Those of us who need to dance at the revolution, who have to sing at the sit-in, who want to feel the joy and solidarity of being alive while we still can. Those of us who understand that beauty, friendship, peace, and mutual aid are always fragile things in this turbulent world, and never to be taken for granted or dismissed as secondary pursuits, (to be taken care of perhaps by the women and queers, as the sad militant pursues his ever more totalizing view of some ever more grim and punishing “reality.”)
I was asked recently: was it ethical for a student to go on hunger strike to oust the president of the University of Missouri for incompetence in addressing racism and economic gender inequity? I felt a note of care and concern for the consequences of “student extremism” was behind the question. I don’t know how I would have counseled a friend who was considering such a path; I haven’t yet walked in those shoes. But I do know that hunger strikes belongs to a venerable tradition of non-violent resistance to civil government. It is a complex and rich question that Patrick Anderson’s insightful book, So Much Wasted, explores in greater detail than I can here. But how could I do anything but honor and salute the bravery of a student who stood publicly to declare unacceptable the arbitrary withdrawal of health care — and in particular of reproductive medical care for women — because of political and budgetary pressures?
It may seem wrong to endanger our health, but it is right to stand by passively as the health of thousands is endangered by the sanctimonious and the greedy?
The new black student movement is teaching me that it is not enough to protest wrongful death, or to chant each others names (as we must) when another one of us is murdered. We must also challenge the terms of our living as well as our dying; we need an actual say in how we live and thrive, how we learn and grow.
We need to “decolonize our gratitude” as someone told me on Twitter; we must challenge the quietist assumption that black and brown people should express more and frequent gratitude over just being allowed to live (rather than killed), over being given educational opportunity (rather than being jailed or beaten), over being citizens of a wealthy and privileged nation at a moment of great chaos, poverty, and disaster in our present world (rather than held in infinite detention at the bleeding borders where the desperate, fleeing extremism, meet the accusation that they themselves are the bearer of the horror they flee).
The new black student movement is changing the terms upon which our culture responds to the performative utterance: Black Lives Matter. Only yesterday, the best that the irrelevant could say in response was to retort, “well, All Lives Matter”! But the student movement has already moved us well past this feeble stutter. Now we actually have to face the question: if black lives, like all lives, matter, then what? Why would expect that answering in the affirmative — yes, black lives do matter — would be the end of it? The students aren’t looking for a cheap affirmation. They already know that their black lives matter; it’s a rhetorical question!
The real challenge is not just to verbally concede the equality of human dignity and the unacceptability of racist speech, conduct, and of violence targeting black, brown, muslim, Asian, and indigenous people. The real challenge is, having conceded this principle, to follow up on actions that actively transform this situation. “Act from thought should quickly follow,” the poet W.H. Auden once wrote, “what is thinking for?”
No one thinks it acceptable, in the name of transgressive free speech or adult child development, for white Ivy League students to mock and abuse native American and black students by dressing as rastafarians or Indian chiefs for Halloween. This is not a question of “safe space” or hypersensitivity: common sense tells us that no civil society could accept such behavior without public reprimand. You cannot study and live together with someone you think of as your inferior, or treat as a laughingstock. You cannot leave the slain unburied in the hot sun for hours, or leave the murders of indigenous women unsolved and uninvestigated. When we act in uncivilized, barbaric ways towards Muslims, blacks, and native peoples, we deserve to be admonished, upbraided, and chastened to do better.
No one thinks it acceptable for Americans to continue to lampoon sacred native rituals in “war dances” or paint their faces at sports competitions featuring teams with names like “Redskins.” The resurgence of native survival and resistance — no, of intellect and creativity — in North America and beyond is one of the most exciting developments in recent years, where have you been? Do you want to live in the world of Clinton the Second or Bush the Third, or is another world not only possible, but already present in the epistemologies and ontologies of the oppressed?
Movements like #IdleNoMore and #BlackLivesMatter are first and foremost movements among black and native communities to regain the self respect with which we can say, without fear of reproach or ridicule, that triumphalist signs of genocide, slavery, and segregation cannot possibly remain at the symbolic center of our culture. Rhodes must fall. So must any other name that serves to honor those who would prefer we never walk their halls except as servants. I once took ironic pride in belonging to institutions named after racists, anti-semites, and other disreputable characters. My very presence was a rebuke, I once thought. But I am starting to wonder whether I need to start dreaming bigger dreams.
The students are doing nothing more than demanding that society actually live up to the values it professes. And they bear the unbearable truth that society can never openly admit: that to actually live up to its stated values, it would have to become something wholly other, even something unrecognizable to its former self.
Transformation is never easy, and rarely is any local struggle fully cognizant of the broader canvas. What is more, the passionate rebuke of the status quo is difficult, dangerous, emotional work. These students are adults, not children, and it is wrong to infantilize them, and a mistake to draw on our expertise in child psychology or our experience as pedagogues to talk down to them.
At the heart of all the student demands heard ringing through the world these past weeks and months, there is this singular fact: the fact of the student demand.
What does the student demand?
The student demands to know who made you the master and her the dependent. The student demands to set the future conditions for her study, which she understands to be a collective study, a study that cannot be contained by Ivy or state school walls.
The athlete demands to know who made you coach, and why he has been robbed of an education and possibly injured for life while you make millions off of his play.
The student demands the right to reclaim her study; to know the world in order to change it. That demand is the freest, most fearless speech we may have the privilege to hear. Will we listen?
*A free, indirect paraphrase of a range of student speech acts heard recently, rather than a direct quotation of any individual person. Thanks to Zahid Chaudhary for reminding me to add this clarification. On free, indirect discourse, please see Typewriter.