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Freeze Flame, Black Fire

By John Murillo III

“We will repeat: the Black Student Union, will no longer stand for this. While there is racism, we will not rest.”

—UCI Black Student Union

“Dream what you like / But you dare not sleep.”

“Contrary to popular, the coloreds is awoke / Ya big dope.”

—Yasiin Bey

A Story that Keeps Beginning Again

The slow, freezing burn of black pain and rage flares cold at my first encounter with Lambda Theta Delta’s video, “LTD Installs 2013.” On screen, the now-familiar sonic beginnings of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie,” featuring Jay-Z begin to slide toward my eardrum as four Asian-American men adjust their dapper attire, all shot in black and white—so very stylish in its political ontological significance. I do not know the name of the feeling I feel once I push pause at the 55 second mark—why else must I resort to metaphor?—is there anything else left? Pain and rage, burning cold still burn cold in the face of blackface. Perhaps I notice it more. Some months ago, my friend Nicholas and I joke about finding a name for this feeling—neither shock, nor awe, nor apathy, nor simply rage, nor pain, nor numbness. The joke remains without a punch-line. I press play again.

The pain and rage and whatever remains in excess of those names burns slow and cold because they seem to burn forever—their video is but another blip, another star in the universe, just like another of their videos, far more casual in its blackface—a literal blip in a much longer Fall Rush video—the universe’s (the universe of, maybe), antiblackness expands toward infinity from without. From within, antiblackness simmers, and the freezer burn on soul, heart, flesh, keeps me up—I cannot rest. Fingers freeze keyboard keys on a laptop to light them on fire as words culminate a click of the share button, a call.

Frozen fire’s music bursts from the Black Student Union of UCI—rage and pain—an ultimate question behind it all—always the question: What do we do (now)? Always the question. And so the song manifests, multidirectional, from everywhere. The Lambda Delta Theta Facebook page first hears it, unwillingly bears its terrifying aurality. Comment after comment voicing disdain, disgust—pain and rage—frozen fire, burning ice, pouring over the source of only the most recent summoning of black suffering. In spite, or even because of—aren’t we forever caught in, and as, between?—the disclaimer on the video that read, “no racism intended,” words, words, words spilled from burning/frozen keyboards and smartphone screens trying to give voice to the unspeakable, express thought and sentiment for the singular and totalizing kind of suffering that exceeds them. The disclaimer disappears from the video in the midst of all of this—perhaps we, blinded by our fury, would not notice—did they not realize the clarity the cool flame of rage brings?—and soon after that, the video itself attempts to disappear as well. Johan Mosquera, one of many student activists, caught it, stored it away—it could not escape—we will not rest.

But comment after comment falls, fits of prestidigitation characteristic of antiblackness: its mystifications demand a kind of skilled magic, the ability to make black things disappear. Fights raging all over Facebook simmer, but persist, so many seeking to defend the magic show, begging blacks to sit and enjoy, to laugh as they laugh, to calm down, to take it differently—which is to say, a call rings out from so many directions, asking blacks to see through nonblack eyes, to bear a nonblack witness, to put away the black pain and rage. Fuel—we will not rest, though they try to put us to sleep. Fire manifests on the Facebook page as Kala Lacy, one of this year’s co-chairs for the BSU, testifies to the multifaceted violence and terror of being black on UCI’s campus, or anywhere. A few:

“Being Black at UCI means being demonized for asking questions.

Being Black at UCI means being identified as ‘black girl.’

Being Black at UCI means being called a ‘nigger bitch,’ ‘nigger whore,’ and being told to go back to your ‘nigger pimp’ while waiting at the bus stop.

Being Black at UCI means being terrorized under disclaimers.

Being Black at UCI means never hearing your history in class.

Being Black at UCI means knowing [that] AFTER ALL THIS IS OVER, RACIST ACTS ON CAMPUS WILL STILL CONTINUE.”

Being Black at UCI means…

And then a call, “ARE YOU TIRED OF ME POSTING? THEN FUCKING DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS.”

Being Black means…

Behind the scenes, within the margins—aren’t we forever caught in, as, between?—a plan brews, calculations being made to challenge the distended calculus of antiblackness’ magic. Strategy birthed with a stroke of luck: the magicians will meet this very same day, right downstairs, right beneath black feet. The Multicultural Greek Council meets at 5 PM, mere hours after this all begins—or continues, for we all know, or at least can approximate, the “beginning” of “this”—ships pass through 15th century waters—ships cross 7th century seas. “What do we do (now)?” appears to have a clear answer: disrupt. Black bodies remain subject to the perpetuity of vertigo, a term, interestingly enough, employed by Frank B. Wilderson III to describe, in part, the black position, (see: “The Vengeance of Vertigo,” 2012). Wilderson’s paradigmatic move to restructure the capacities of thought itself to account for the unspeakable/unthinkable position of the black holds as one of its most intriguing metaphors this concept of vertigo. And this call to disrupt their meeting, to irrupt into their space with black voice, black presence, black position marks its most apparent, but certainly not only, parallel there: black vertigo, or the vertigo of being black, weaponized, put on the ground, to be shared, a gift. Theory on the ground, theory as ground—the meeting approaches, and the need to share but a glimpse of the freezer burn of black vertigo stokes every flame, draws more to it. The numbers grow, and no one rests.

A video of channeled vertigo finds its way to the BSU Facebook page. Black bodies and voices spilling into a room, chanting, “While there is racism, we will not rest!” and a dark embankment forms around confused faces, some marked with concern, fear, wonder—disorientation. And it is vertigo controlled, frozen fire aware. The inferno of chants pauses all at once; synchronized silence to allow what is to come. Mummee Mohammed speaks first:

“Lamda Theta Delta identifies itself as the largest Asian-American interest organization on this campus. We ask, ‘Why does the Jay-Z character need to be in blackface, while Justin Timberlake needs no caricature? Why?’

As black people on this campus, we already endure enough violence on a daily basis—we don’t really need y’all adding to it.”

Black violence is gratuitous and does not rest; it assaults blacks daily, on campuses, everywhere, all the time, without repose. The answer to his question looms in the liminal space, known, but unspeakable, known as unspeakable, quietly. Kala, continues:

“Last quarter, one of our students was arrested walking down the street on her way home from work. Last year, Pi Beta Phi gave out a ‘Once you go black, you never go black award.’ Last night, I saw a photo of Alpha Phi’s paddle saying ‘Slave Driver’ on it.

How many of our freshmen have to move from their dorms for being called ‘Nigger’?

How many times will we have to be demonized and disrespected for asking questions in class?

How many times will we have trash thrown at us while we are walking to the ARC?

How many times will I be called a nigger outside of Albertsons?

How many times will I be harassed at a bus stop while I’m just trying to go home?

How many times will we have to face this?”

In the between, the liminal, in the betwixt, the answer rocks in its chair, quietly waiting in and as excess of the pain and rage Kala’s voice marks as it rings out over the room, as it cracks at the second to last of her questions, and in the microcosmic silence that follows in the space between her words and those of her co-chair, Ainaria (Ria) Johnson.

“Lambda Theta Delta has, on MULTIPLE, occasions, used blackface in their videos. Multiple. You just came back from suspension. You know why. We won’t bring it up. Your fraternity does not deserve to be a part of this campus. You advise your viewers that you were not trying to be racist.

Your insufficient apology is not enough, and it will never be enough.

We see everything, and we’re not letting anything else lie.”

Snaps and hails from the crowd ring out, can barely contain themselves before Ria’s words cease. The frigid fire spilled from their presence, and a freezing conflagration poured from her words, such that the meeting is frozen in cold smoldering ashes. And it is here that Christopher Jones prophesies, “You will understand. Or we will make you understand,” departing with a more ominous than pleasant, “Thank you. Have a good day.”

Their feet do not fail them. They shift through space and time like only blacks can. Another meeting, with one of the four Asian-American men from the video in attendance, becomes the target for a second staging, a second vertigoic procession. A video documents this, as powerful and disruptive, politically and metaphysically as the first. SPOP staffers, one in a cape, in a room of students seated on the carpeted floor of Doheny Beach in the Student Center, caught unawares. Their faces recall the disorientation of those before them. In a separate video, the aftermath is clear: A face full contorted in sadness, an apology barely audible over the whir of blackness around it, and eyes red from tears of shame, all with a tinge of discernible sincerity. And yet, it is not over, and none rest, as Christopher Jones recognizes. At length:

“I know directly following our disrupting the SPOP training there were questions of if we had gone too far. The offender had apologized, wasn’t that enough? He cried on camera, another student had even broken down during?

If you have a Facebook account then you have seen the same sentiment echoed by those who were not there, who do not understand, and don’t really care about the issues we rallied for. But so you don’t feel uncomfortable when they assail you with words such as “bully” and “you made him cry”, take comfort in knowing what we should be striving for has not yet been realized. We do not have to feel cruel for being unsatisfied.

An apology is something you give when you want to show regret for hurt you may have caused. It does not mend the hurt nor does it address the problem, and when it is used as a defense it is meant to divert and mitigate the response, not to actually solve anything. It is no accident that the apology is followed by “now lay off”. The apology, even if it was heartfelt, does nothing to address the situation, his tears can’t bring us change, and so we keep it pushing.

My grandmother would always say: “Don’t waste my time with your sorries, just never do it again. That’s what I’ll believe.” And that’s what I’m here for, why I went into that meeting with you all. What we should be striving for.

I want a never again.”

A never again to the endless, an end to the infinite—to escape the fugitivity inherent in the paradox, the refrain, again—we will not rest.

Frozen burning keyboard keys and smartphone screens frost over and catch fire all through the night and well into the beginnings of day. The UCI Secrets page explodes in persistent and anonymous defiance, sliding into defense of the fraternity more easily than it can even begin to think the legitimacy of black rage. Inboxes flood with messages decrying the BSU for remaining adamant in its position despite the tearful apology of the student, and the official apology of the fraternity, many of which are laced with threats and anger at the audacity of blacks that choose to speak, blacks that choose to move, blacks that, thus, disorient. Fraternities and sororities wear red shirts in solidarity with the antiblackness of the video itself, and with the antiblackness inherent in the call for black silence and acquiescence. Black fingers furiously fing keyboard keys and smartphone screens, casting freezer-burn on the BSU Facebook page; frigid fire stoked, stays lit burns cold. News of a call to ABC7 News on behalf of the frat reaches me from Sabreen Shalabi, and I relay the message—still, none rest.

Another matter of fortune: camera time for the black students, for Ria and Kala, scheduled, the war of the antagonisms between the space-time of blacks and the space-time of all others persists, will be seen. Article after article appears on site after site. Angry Asian Man expresses his outrage over the overt antiblackness of both instances of blackface in a blog post. Patrick Chen, Chief of Staff of the Office of the Executive Vice President Associated Students UCI (ASUCI), creates a Facebook post entitled “Anti-Blackness at UC Irvine [possible trigger warning]” detailing his take on events, and how best to interpret and move forward from them; Colorlines produces a piece covering the events more generally and disinterestedly. Radio station 89.3 KPCC posts an article about the situation along with a poll asking readers if this, to them, was “blatantly racist,” “profoundly ignorant,” if those two “are the same thing,” or “other.” And even Steven Yeun, of Walking Dead fame, remarks in agreement with the dominant discourse, sustaining the feeling that the students were wrong, their behavior was antiblack, and so forth.  ABC7’s report manifests in a video bookended with the fraternity’s president speaking on behalf of his organization with, at most, disdain, and is peppered with input from black and non-black student reactions and opinions, even allotting Kala Lacy a few seconds to speak on behalf of the BSU, and Thomas Parham to address the situation as ambivalently as one might expect administration to do. KTLA publishes a kindred video, more appropriately structured, ending with the sentiment that the university will (likely) issue a punishment. Which is why I cannot rest.

All of these outlets press forward with their coverage by privileging the voices of nonblacks and of the administration. Each weighs its parts differently, but none appropriately centralize black voices on what is a black movement grounded in the perpetual vertigo of blackness and the freezing fire of pain, rage, and what exceeds them. This is why Black Students wear all black on Friday, many donning signs that gave words to narratives, questions—signs that attempt to speak blackness, its pain, rage, and the excess. This is why Blacks, in solidarity, begin to share their photographs and narratives on the BSU’s Facebook page, on their own profiles, on their Twitter and Tumblr acconts, and beyond. This is why the keys of my keyboard freeze and burn at the same time as the words continue to manifest on the screen. This is why these black fingers typing the black words on the page that even those in solidarity cannot print. This is why I, we, do not rest.

I close what cannot be closed with a breaking open, marked by the singularity of blackness, captured in the BSU’s official statement, which, when read, is very much indebted to the words spoken and the questions asked at both the Multicultural Greek Council and SPOP meetings. What they speak and ask, itself, is poignant and polemical, destructive and disruptive all on its own, but just as its inclusion below will only mark an opening into an excess, so do the curves and straights of every letter, every punctuation mark, and every blank space. There is more, always more, always something in excess when blackness is thought, always that singularity sitting in that rocking chair in that liminal space, in the margins, outside in the in-between, underground and in outer space. And it burns a slow, frigid, unstoppable and infinite burn. We do not rest, the frozen fire stays lit, stoked, and we stay woke.

“University of California and its affiliates,

We, the Black Student Union, will no longer stand for the continuous disrespect of our community.

How many of our freshman will have to move out of their dorms due to racial harassment?
How many times will we be disrespected and demonized for asking questions in class?
How many times will we be spat at and have trash thrown at us while walking to the ARC?
How many times will we be called “nigger” outside of Albertsons?
How many times will we be publicly embarrassed and harassed at campus bus stops?

In 2011, our campus allowed Pippin Commons to host a chicken and waffles dinner “in honor of” Martin Luther King Jr.
In 2012, Pi Beta Phi felt it appropriate to give a “Once you go Black, you never go back” award.
This year, Alpha Phi and Phi Psi felt it appropriate to have a paddle saying “slave driver” and “little slave” on it.
This week, Lambda Theta Delta felt it appropriate to use Blackface in multiple promotion videos.

Although it is easy to cite Greek organizations as perpetrators of racism, this is not a Greek issue. This is more than that. It is more than an individual issue. This is a UC system wide issue, and ultimately, a world-wide issue. AntiBlackness and racism is reproduced within each UC campus, whether in the form of nooses at UC San Diego, or Ku Klux Klan hoods in UC Davis.

What all of these actions have in common is a lack of respect, a lack of accountability, and a disregard of particular students’ well being on campus.
Because of these actions, not to mention the more mundane and less publicized forms of violence, continue to occur despite repeated outcry for justice, apologies are no longer enough. It has never been enough, and it will never be.

We, the Black Student Union, will no longer stand for this.
We demand than when, not if, WHEN another incident of organized racism occurs on this campus, official punitive policies will be utilized and in place to address to perpetrators.

We will repeat- the Black Student Union, will no longer stand for this.

While there is racism, we will not rest.”

John Murillo is a second year Ph.D. student at Brown University in the English department.  His research interests include theoretical physics, critical theory, afro-pessimism, cognitive neuroscience and literary theory.  He reads comic books often, and is currently working on two graphic novels.

2 thoughts on “Freeze Flame, Black Fire

  1. Pingback: Op Ed: Defying Antiblackness at UC Irvine—and Everywhere | The Feminist Wire

  2. Pingback: Black Suffrage, Anti-Blackness, LTD Blackfacing. | Identity and the Body in Asian American Literature

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