Katherine McKittrick, a conversation on Black Dreamcatchers
Katherine McKittrick is a writer, editor, professor, and Canada Research Chair in Black Studies at Queen University. Her publications include “Dear Science and Other Stories” (2020), “Demonic Grounds” (2006) and editor of “Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis” (2014).
McKittrick’s work is situated within black feminist thought, the arts, and cultural geographies. Her first book explored the creative, embodied, and intellectual spaces of the African diaspora, with later publications theorizing how social justice emerges in Black creative texts, especially music, fiction, poetry, and visual art. Much of her work attends to Black geographies and the politics of place—significantly, her reading of “blackness” in colonial archives uncovers the connections between expressions and practices of Black freedom and the production of space. By conceptualizing Black diasporic practices as spatialized acts of survival, she introduces inventive methodological approaches to Black Studies.
This interview was conducted by co-editor Ryan Clarke in February 2023.
What are your thoughts on how the environment could have a mutual reflection on the musical forms that come from these places? In my own work, I think about how the agricultural influenced New Orleans culture, but for Detroit it's more industrial. Then again, there’s this Fred Moten quote about how the industrial was always agricultural and vice-versa.
“You can imagine a standard distinction between the rural and the urban. The distinction between the industrial and the agricultural… that's less clear to me… the agricultural was always industrial. You don't have to drive down highway 61 for very long in the Mississippi delta before you understand how that's true. It reminds me of this whole rich tradition of experimental visuality that comes out of the south and it undermines any kind of simple distinction between the so-called trained and the so-called untrained. There's just all this beautiful stuff that people have always been doing and the mystery is not that they could do it or that they had the capacity to do it, the mystery is how they do it and continue to do it under such mind-numbing, flesh destroying duress. You know, that's the mystery.”
-Fred Moten, 2022. Sam Gilliam's Latest: A Roundtable Conversation.
The production of space is connected to cultural production. How we make place is a creative and inventive act, and this is especially relevant for communities on the margins. What I like about the Detroit electronic scene is that it teases apart the conditions through which electronic music can emerge and what that means. It's almost like you couldn't do it anywhere else. It has to be done in Detroit! It has to be done on this border—in this case, between Canada and the USA, but there are other borders, too. The music itself asks: Can it cross the way? But it doesn’t answer that question. It leaves it hanging. And, as Fred’s insights might lead us to see—electronica is spatially messy, one cannot divide or slice apart the rural and the urban, the agricultural and the industrial, or other regions and locations that are seemingly disconnected from Detroit. In some ways, we might understand Detroit electronica as an industrial sound that moves outward and conditions other spaces and places, but also becomes attached to elsewhere and brings that elsewhere—whatever elsewhere might be, sound, vibe, ecology, tree, sand—back to industry.
Black cultural production seems to deal directly with nature and is not interested in behaving in a vacuum in the ways that European forms, like art, might be assumed to be purely an interior endeavor. Was the Baroque period a response in dealing with their environment? Surely yes, but it's not a part of the story given to us where there’s a dialectic of self and nature whereas in a lot of Black forms, they're outside.
It's also about reading practices, right? How we understand and how we're taught to study European music. We're given a lens where we produce this music as emerging from almost anything, like it is a comes out of pristine or a pure set of histories—or an enclosed interior space, as you say. At the same time, it's strapped down with a legacy, a colonial legacy where you're not supposed to interrupt it by being Black or noticing blackness.
And you're not supposed to intervene in that history because it's almost a magical history.
There is also something important about the way that we're taught to read Black music, at least to me—it is naturalized, as though it comes only from the body. One of the examples I use in my work is that it is assumed that Jimi Hendrix didn't rehearse and practice his guitar, and that his knowledge of music was authentically black rather than studied. But he practiced and rehearsed and studied his instrument day and night. He was an exemplary scholar-musician.
But you also mentioned the environment and the outside, which allows us to think: how does nature function in relation to those two music histories—black and European? How does nature (the black authentic body that music just naturally emanates from) get differentiated from culture or the cultured (the learned musician that provides us with studious sounds)? Spatial metaphors (nature, wildlife, wilderness, the outdoors) sneak in to how some categorize black art and black creatives.
This gets replicated in urban settings. Does Black music always need a city? Or, what is urban music? Where does music, or a sound, reside? Those types of questions are important. When I was younger, I was only told about East Coast and West Coast hip-hop. In addition to geographic specificity—the coasts—there was an idea the two music histories were disconnected. Of course, we can make all sorts of connections between these music narratives, but geography sometimes gets in the way, and it encourages us to bifurcate and divide. Of course, then OutKast came along and said, "We're from the South" and their sound and compositions were really out of this world. Again, there is no purity there, but the musical work OutKast does lends to the connections between geography and music and belonging. In black music we see a kind of respatialization of where music can take place, but also how it expands outside itself.
We pull from geographic forms to a certain point that we have to acknowledge just how much they inform something we might call an anthropogenic form…. like certain buildings are evidence of our geological understanding of space. And so this idea of the industrial, the agricultural, the rural having its own...
Yes, yes, exactly. That subversive environmental residue can rub off onto people who are around. Leo Wadada Smith was talking about the space that he leaves in his music. He thinks about growing up in the Delta. He speaks to horizontality as his approach and he's reflecting on the landscape that he grew up in.
“When you grow up in a flatland like the Delta, you begin to see long distance,” he says. “And whichever direction you turn, you find that this flatness unfolds in a way that that gives you some perspective on general forms, how things are laid out horizontally and so on. I would say that that's one of the most important things that goes into my music— that kind of horizontal form, and how to look at multiple directions that may seem to be flat because of the way in which it unfolds horizontally and space seems to spread out forever. So, you end up
seeing that from top to bottom, the space that you’re standing on in a flat desert in Mississippi that's called Delta.”
-Leo Wadada Smith. 2022. "Leo Wadada Smith Invites You To Listen". Salvation South
For someone who's trying to articulate that, and we can talk about this too within academic structures because how do we get this other epistemology across? I’m not just wanting to address ideas through this way, I want to learn this way. Something like a pedagogy of suggestion.
Thinking about your most recent book, Dear Science, it seems that you're not interested in reducing all of these different texts that you're pulling from to carry an inherent purpose but is really the act of sharing worlds we can learn from. Not trying to inculcate them into a western value system, but more so saying "well, they're coming with me." That you want other people to feel them; to not be explicit as to try to tell the secrets behind the door of Blackness… which I don't even know if I'm going on a tangent so I’ll stop there. You seem to be interested in bringing usually institutionally illegible texts into the fold.
The university is a site of terrible contradiction. It's full of amazing possibility and you walk into these spaces and that's destroyed. There are all these forces working against you to destroy that amazing possibility. One of the things that is useful to bring with you into the university are texts we have that can inform how we learn, how we read, how we talk to each other, how we struggle against different kinds and types of oppression. This idea that we carry our “subversive environmental residue” with us is right on!
This residue is a lesson, just as books and texts are lessons. Some of them I love and some of them I hate, some I don't read again, and some I read repeatedly, but they are lessons in how to navigate the academy rather than lessons that I or we memorize and put on my comprehensive exams or my qualifying exams. I don't want to be tested on these kinds of texts.
Vévé Clarke’s concept of diasporic literacy. I adore this concept, which is that we can have a set of textual or musical or visual prompts. Prompt is the key word—it is a signal or a reminder or a clue. I can say something to you and as a Black scholar, you'll know who or what I'm talking about. We don't have to spend our whole day unpacking it and why it's relevant. We just know that this is a prompt that has helped us get through the day. It is a lovely way to think about literacy and our referential cues—because it situates the work of knowing, reading, and writing as a mode of expanse and sharing, too.
Referencing for me is about sharing ideas and struggling against coloniality rather than mastering the text. I believe that Black musicians, intellectuals, creatives, have offered us ways to actually engage with art and ideas in ways that are really generous. I mean, the other thing is there is something behind the door and the what's behind the door is this monumental Black intellectual history that we have worked on and worked up that is amazingly valuable, but we don't have to constantly put that out as proof.
Instead, it's about having conversations about liberation, about abolition, and struggling against different types of oppression. Literacy and referencing and reading can be lessons in subtle ways to share and get through, just wade through, the structures of white supremacy.
For example, in Canada we started Black studies like yesterday. It's another kind of history, and this is why geography matters so much—especially the ways geographies overlap and entwine! There are a lot of models in the US, the Caribbean, and in the UK. There are a lot of models in place for us to think through what Black Canada means here, when we don't have that longer institutional history, but we do have a centuries old Black presence. So, there are all sorts of ways Black studies can move through different kinds and types of contexts as well and shape-shift, too. It's not just about the university. It's about activism. It's about reading groups. It's about all these different and diasporic ways that we build our worlds. And using diasporic literacy to do that, I think is important. There's something so colonial about saying and confidentially claiming "this is what I know" and it’s not ever about being playful or joyous or even a struggle. It is just disciplining!
What a lot of folks have noticed, for example, in hip-hop, there's a lot of referencing. There's a lot of diasporic literacy. Names are dropped, but there is not this kind of comprehensive bibliography or biography that accompanies the name. I mean, there's a lot showing or telling—“this is what I know”—but it is gaming, too, a mode of playfulness or a request for a response or the narration of a difficult story through beautiful sounds and beats. There's also a playfulness to this. Play can be hard and terrible and onerous too! But play (playing song, playing dance, dropping names, claiming place) is also fun. I'm not saying that it's not rigorous, but there is something beautiful about that— the way that Black creatives and intellectuals have used what they know, how they know, and turned it into something completely different: that is the anticolonial at work.
It feels like the dozens, or signifyin’ where we’re going back and forth while you hear these references being dropped.
I grew up in the Baptist Church, and something that I always thought was so interesting was when the pastor would say something and be like, "You'll know what I mean on your way home.” As if to say, "I'm not even going to go into it. I'm just waiting for you to let that click for yourself."
Where is that in modern schooling? That's why poetry and music is a worthwhile site of investigation because so much of that is happening. Even explicitly, especially with Detroit techno. I'm thinking about Underground Resistance. The phrases that they use: “For those who know…” or “Somewhere in Detroit" suggests a... I guess the term we always return back to is opacity, but it doesn't have to be rooted in this historical overdetermination… really the word I'm looking for is loudcapping.
They're not being so loud as to be obvious. There's a term that I included in a previous email that I read from this book on spiritual churches in New Orleans. It's a Melville Herskovits term, “concrete pun”.
He explains how New Orleans spiritual churches are outward signs or signals of the mingling of African and European beliefs that point to a reconciliation at the psychological level between the saints and the loa, in which his talking about Haitian voodoo being linked to Catholic saints because in these places, if you're a Haitian living in New Orleans in the 1800s, a lot of that stuff was sort of suppressed at the state level.
It was very, "we don't know what it is you're doing and we would actually like you to convert to Catholicism instead." Using the mask of Catholicism at its surface— something like St. Peter having a snake at his feet, is actually messaging towards an Orisha. The book goes on to say, "…which by reasoned analogy or by ruse allowed Africans to maintain their own beliefs." I think that this concrete pun shows a way for how this ruse to happen within Blackness within a society that wants to structure on its own forms. Maybe something like this idea extended into Black Arts in the 19th and 20th century.
I've always been interested in the intermingling of different kinds and types of symbolism. I'm not a religious studies person at all, but I adore Sylvia Wynter and she is very deep into this field... But thinking through how these different narratives end up becoming imbricated to the point where you can't pull them apart.
What you are describing is sort of a terrible encounter, the masks and the messaging and this layered belief system that came out of colonial violence. So how do we live with these connections that have been imposed on us?
Part of the story of Dear Science is that it's not abandoning an academic form, so in that book I try and hold some of these imbrications together, which means living with and reading and learning from many forms of knowledge, including Eurocentric forms of knowledge. It's seeing what we can do with the academic form even though the academic institution is so punishing. It's also seeing what others have taught me to do with the academic form. Famously, each chapter of Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk begins with musical compositions, or sorrow songs. He's providing a model for us for an interdisciplinary text that's necessarily about listening, about sharing songs, about the church, about all these types of things.
So I think that concrete pun or that ruse is part of what I think all Black academics do in different ways. They are radical interdisciplinary scholars, not just Black folks, but in my work, that's who I've noticed and learned from. Radical interdisciplinarity might be what you describe as a ruse to work within that system and subvert it simultaneously. That's beautiful.
Every dissertation I've read or come across in Black Studies, they are sneaking in some hip-hop song or some poem by John Keene. You know what I mean? They're just throwing it in there and they're like, "No, this is sociology." When we first connected, we talked about how you can hold geology with you as you move through your studies so that you can't abandon these other histories. They just kind of sit with you.
To bring them all in the circle.
I want to continue this idea of the ruse. It's something that I thought about for a year now and I tried to begin to include it in almost this thought about what it means to imbue some kind of magic. It’s having an effective change on its environment. That is magical. It is producing an effect. And that effect can mean a lot of things: structural, emotive, social.
Something magical can change your relationship to a sense of space and yourself. In that way I want to understand Techno as an apotropaic object. Techno seems to desire a sort of distance with the listener… it imposes a sort of distance to where you almost have to include yourself in the imagination of the song for it to fully function. And if you don’t like, you really won’t find yourself around it at all.
Another apotropaic object is a dreamcatcher. In modern terms, and I don't even believe this in the way that I'm talking about it, but it's almost like a placebo. To activate it, you must introduce yourself into its own belief structure.
I've been thinking a lot about techno’s doing that. It has a certain amount of opacity where it's like once you believe it can start to do things for you. Otherwise, it'll function as something dismissive like, “I don't know or care about what this is”. And that’s powerful! It’ll weed out those that aren’t feeling it to get away. But once you lock into it and tune yourself into it, you're locked into the histories of Motown, soul music, automation, and working-class sensibilities.
I saw that you included Drexciya in one of your chapters in Dear Science. Clearly you found it to be effective. What's your history with the sound and your purpose of including it Dear Science?
My partner introduced me. He's a musician and a coder, and I talk about him in the algorithms chapter as well. I should probably call him my co-author…but I couldn't believe what happened when I first listened to Drexciya. I love bass, and they weren't as bassy as I love, and yet I still felt inclined to enter into the environment that they were producing.
It was actually the high-hat sound. I was taken by that. When I started doing a little bit more research, [I saw that] they have this origin story of the slaves being thrown overboard, which is something that Black studies scholars always have to grapple with, whether they write about it or not, they have to grapple with this history of racial violence. And I thought, what are they doing?
They're giving us a text, liner notes, and it's telling this particular story of the murder of the enslaved, but they're also anonymizing themselves. And Daphne Brooks tells us, liner notes can be a method. If we take her seriously, and I do, Drexciya is giving us a method for thinking about how to live with the history of loss, the history of those thrown overboard. They're doing all of these kind of performance games, ruses actually, of which the liner notes are a part. There are all these activities, where they're obscuring who they are, what their history is, and what their music is, where some things are legible and other things are not. Then they give us a soundtrack to that complexity.
For me, they are exemplary of radical interdisciplinarity. They draw on the Black history, this history of loss, and they use that to draw us in. I think that one of the reasons people are interested in Drexciya isn't necessarily because of their sound, but because of that origin story, because they're naming what is unspeakable. So, you come into their music with that story, which is like a razor’s edge when we sit with it, but then they do something else with it, they kind of show us what is at stake if we want to reduce black people to visual objects. At one point, in an interview I think, they say their music is not about personalities—this is another clue that shows us what it means to know and unknow blackness.
One of the ways that we get caught up in Black popular culture, one of the pitfalls of Black popular culture is that it's a visual economy and we're saturated with that. Drexciya’s asking us not to participate in that visual economy, at least for a moment, and to listen. I love that. It's useful pedagogically. I designed a whole course around this called Hip-Hop Technologies, and the students aren't allowed to analyze lyrics or the artist’s biography. They must analyze sounds. They can talk about voice, but it has to be voice as an instrument. It can't be what the voice is saying. We study J Dilla and that kind of work—it is a way to get students not to become preoccupied with what Beyonce's kids' hair looks like, things like that.
That's all spectacle.
Yeah, which is distracting. That's where Drexciya has taken me. But I do think it is... like you were talking about, you have to attune yourself to activate this kind of reading and listening practice. I think that that's what they give us. They give us that space, the story, to enter, and it activates something that we can't anticipate.
How do we continue this oral tradition where it's not so interested in the visuality but has been configured to be easily commodified as a visually appreciated object? What thoughts do you have on Blackness not being tied to the corporeal being?
This is the question I think that we all have, It's the fact of Blackness. I don't think that we should abandon the body, but we should think about embodiment. One of the ways that I like to think about Blackness and music is through the physiological responses that we have to music and the way that it works on our bodies as opposed to putting it on a stage and recreating a crude performance where it's a Black person performing for a presumed white audience within the terms of racial capitalism.
I always try to think of different entryways into studying Black history, studying Black cultural production and Black music and Black visual art—in ways that always ask me to question my conclusion. I always ask myself, is your conclusion that Black people and/or the Black body is abject? Or is your conclusion interrupting that?
One of the ways that I've thought about the interruption is through focusing on the love of music and the cultural labor that goes into making music as well. I brought up Jimi Hendrix earlier and I've thought through this with other visual artists, people who sculpt, like Willie Bester, and the kind of wear and tear this creative labor it puts on their bodies. And how the practice of making Black life and Black creative life is hard. It's really hard.
I've also thought about this in relation to Sylvia Wynter too and the weight that goes into writing the world ethically and imagining the world anew and inventing new ideas and new pathways. This is physiologically tiring. But it also brings us incredible joy. So I don't want this to be read as a saccharine and cheesy idea that music will free us because I don't think it will, but it does provide... Again, I'll use lesson. It is a lesson in expressing a form of beautiful Black livingness.
This is a gift. I think all forms of Black intellectual and creative output have that lesson-gift regardless of whether we like them and groove to them or not.
I want to talk to you about the fraughtness of romanticizing past formats, whether that's past lives, past aesthetics, past musical formats. For example, vinyl became this sacred object and for some it’s led to the museumification of records where it can no longer do what it wants to do… be played!
Brathwaite would talk about how the archive cannot exist in the Caribbean or the circum-Caribbean. When he was in Harvard, he was like it could only be here. They don't get hurricanes. What are your thoughts about romanticizations or preservations of the past?
It's dangerous. Nostalgia is dangerous. Black scholars have been telling us this for a long time. You can't go back. The diaspora, for example, can't go back to Africa and have access to what was. There wasn’t a “better time” either. We are presented with linear time and Black people are constantly reinventing this sense of time and our sacred objects. Look what we did with oil drums or how, as you imply, how we re-did how a record is played and what it can do... I mean Braithwaite's observations are so beautiful because I think it was George Lamming's archives—Muna Dahir shared this with me—that were partially destroyed because of the sea salt. You also can't preserve somethings! Sacred objects are provisional.
This also points a way for us to abandon the coloniality of history that's linear and terrible. One of the things that I think that Black folks do, and they do so brilliantly is that they are masters of reinvention. There'll be a particular artifact from the past and they'll pull it out of the past and fuck with it and create something new. Linear time is completely called into question. I think that's how time works for us. The invention, reinvention of not just artifacts and objects and vinyl or other things, but that invention and reinvention of time.
Sylvia Wynter, Brathwaite, Glissant, and others tell us that linear time, colonial time, market time, is in fact a dangerous biocentric script because that progress-arrow reifies an apes-to-Aryan logic. Where does that put the figure of the black? This is tied to a very sinister obsession with old things, old times, and with old things, and going back in time. What does that desire to return mean? Plantation times? I mean…
I love that black creatives and scholars are committed to the constant invention and reinvention of time and place and space. These reconfigurations do something to humanity. They assert black humanity by situating the human—or more accurately all kinds of humanness—outside colonial time-space. Or, the black reinvention of time and place and space accentuates anti-colonial inter-humanness.
Follow Katherine McKittrick on twitter @demonicground