Let the Fire Burn

My dear friend Jack took me to go see the documentary film by Jason Osder, Let the Fire Burn, which examines the way the Philadelphia police department bombed the MOVE headquarters in West Philadelphia back in 1985. The resultant fire destroyed about 60 homes and killed many MOVE members, several of whom were children.

MOVE was a radical black collective that also functioned like a religion. Watching many of the members speak about their beliefs in the video footage was heart rending — I could so thoroughly appreciate their standpoint in the social order and how they were radicalized. I found myself agreeing with them when they spoke about how “the system” and “the man” were organized in such a way that the MOVE community could only be perceived as an alien, irrational threat. I also saw how their radical politics skirted on more dangerous philosophies — the way they were feeding their children, the way they were willing to provoke and alienate their neighbors.

The film did an excellent job of examining the complexities in community relations around this event. Set in a predominantly black neighborhood, MOVE antagonized many of their black neighbors, courted white radical allies, and was a lodestone for the police department’s interest — despite MOVE’s initially non-violent activities.

I saw much in MOVE that reminded me of North Korea. They were simultaneously clear sighted and mad. It was the clear vision and madness one clings to when the world refuses to acknowledge your basic humanity or right to self-determination — and sadly, madness distracts from any recognition of clearness. They reached out and imagined a new mode of being, setting out to recompose themselves as best they could.

Listening to the commission questioning a few MOVE members, police officers, and public officials also illustrated to me how these two imaginations for social order — MOVE’s and the City’s — were one hundred percent incompatible with each other. Several of the police officers involved clearly had no ability to see MOVE members as human beings with rights, thoughts, and feelings. There were two different sorts of human beings occupying a shared space together, and though they both seemed to speak the same language, the words they spoke fell on ears that could not hear them.

What I witnessed in this documentary film was a fundamental failure in the human imagination.

A failure to imagine each other otherwise.

A failure to imagine the world otherwise.

As much as I applaud MOVE’s desires to liberate themselves, I also saw how so much of this imagination was founded on completely broken structures of being. How can we create a break in the social order — with history — when we ourselves have been so broken?

This is a question I spin back to incessantly.

How to renew my imagination.

How to imagine the world otherwise.

How to be otherwise.

I do not believe any imagination can be renewed or produce fruit without love. A generosity in attention.

How can we start to see that to be human is to be more than our bodies and minds. That we are our histories and our environments. That there are collectives and trajectories that compose us all the time, which we participate in all the time.

I am describing the way we are starlight and earth, how there are spirits that fill us and they continue to have names. Fire consumes as it burns, but even it leaves a residue.

Philadelphia is a haunted city, but it is haunted in the way that so many of us are. Just under the skin. If you pay attention, it speaks to you. It writes ciphers in the sky. Listening to these sounds and signs can lead you into a transformative encounter of this space.

I wish more people could see this documentary. I wish its black char could rise into the sky and be free.

I wonder — what messages were sent skyward on the tongues of those flames.




The Delusion of “Post-Race”

This term gets floated around a lot. Post-race. Post-racial. It’s clearly a reactionary term. To actually believe in it as a fundamental standpoint is totally ludicrous.

It’s on my mind at the moment because I just read Amiri Baraka’s excoriating response to the anthology Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American LIterature. Baraka essentially points to the delusion inherent in trying to erase an entire sector of lived experience for somehow harming or reducing the artistic merit of work produced by non-white artists. I say non-white because only “white” artists are allowed be “free” from history and society. “Whiteness” doesn’t have a “history.” That’s why it tries to destroy everyone else’s. But that is a blog post for another day.

POST-RACE only exists when “race” ceases to operate as a structural framework for exclusion, limitation, and oppression. To pretend it doesn’t have power doesn’t make it go away. Artists often turn to the aesthetic or formal as a way of distancing themselves from the social and material, which I personally think is delusional. Ignoring your body doesn’t make it go away. It makes it wither and sicken.

I call race a consensual fiction, but that DOESN’T mean that I think the way to transform it is to ignore it. I call it a consensual fiction because the differences that “race” brings into legibility actually aren’t fundamental differences at all.

Baraka is a spitfire intellectual who has provoked on many occasions. I, for one, am a fan.

As an “Asian American” author, these sorts of questions are always on my mind. To be “Asian American” is always a question of being. HOW am I what I am being right now? This is a constant negotiation between me, my environment, and my social context. History runs through and around me always. I am never just “me.” How to channel all these things into something fundamentally different is my constant challenge.

I love poetry for how it can model alternatives in thought. To read a poem is to have your brain potentially rewired. As a social phenomenon, though, poetry also exhibits society’s best and worst symptoms. These sorts of debates — of grouping and privileging, of distancing and differentiating — these are power plays.

Let’s be Real. Actual. True.