Many hands make light work
by Laura McTighe
In 1893, Ida B. Wells published a pamphlet addressed “to the seeker after truth” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She imagined that at least one of the visitors to the so-called “White City” might ask of the American contribution, Is this all there is?
For American religious historians, the year 1893 and the event of the Chicago World’s Fair conjure a single strong image: the World’s Parliament of Religions. I introduce Ida B. Wells’s pamphlet in order to propose both a different entry point for religious studies—and a research agenda. Black women have long figured as the foil to America’s religio-racialanxieties. And scholars of religion have too often been complicit in reproducing these biases by treating Black women as always already “naturally” religious—and thus the ready-made objects of religious studies. Ida B. Wells refused that offloading of religion onto Black women. Instead, she tracked the contours of her own religio-racial surveillance. Through that creative and methodical work, she was able to present a searing indictment of the co-constitution of white supremacy and Christianity in the American nation. She also spoke into being the possibility of a world beyond everyday survival: toward life, liberation, and thriving.
I use the concept “dark sousveillance” (literally: watching from below) to bring together Black women’s long running actions of theorizing religion and race in America. How does watching from below enable one to render violence visible and also to shape what is being seen? Once you know where the blind spots are, how can you strategically stay out of the frame? What is possible to build in the shadows? The image (above) that grounds this essay plays with light in these ways. Silhouettes of arms and hands are seen as they work together to install a window, but their work is also just beyond reach, just beyond recognition, even by the onlooker in the image’s foreground. This is the politics and poetics of visibility. Ida B. Wells shined just enough light to expose the religio-racial underpinnings of anti-Black violence, but not so much that her generations-honed sousveillance could be squashed before it could realize the world otherwise.
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Black people were poorly represented in all aspects of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—from underemployment in its running to racist stereotypes that filled the exhibit halls. The pages of Ida B. Wells’s text enumerated “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” She outlined the willful erasure of the “progress of the Afro-American since emancipation.” She documented the Jim Crow playbook through which Black people were first isolated from necessary social supports through “class legislation,” second blamed for the abuse they survived through a perverse moral reasoning, and third criminalized for this survival through the convict lease system and the “lynch law.” Twenty thousand copies of the pamphlet were made available for distribution in the last three months of the fair. Wells set up shop at a desk in the Haitian pavilion where Frederick Douglass (who wrote the pamphlet’s introduction) served as official representative. Every day until the fair’s end, Wells put copies of “The Reason Why” into the hands of attendees, striking up conversations about race and religion in America with as many as she could.
Wells was writing against a nation that placed Blackness—and especially Black womanhood—in a glaring religio-racial frame. Blackness was (and still is) treated alternately as the ecstatic counterpoint to high Protestant “good religion”; as the hyper-religious outlier amid a secularizing nation; as the authentic fix to the iron cage of industrial capitalism; and as the stain so profane that it must be expelled from the “sacred” body public. Wells used her careful observations of the convict lease system and the lynch law to turn this whole religio-racial gaze back upon the White City’s architects (and those of the Jim Crow carceral sphere). She gave two interrelated explanations for the “twin infamies” decimating Black life. First, “the religious, moral and philanthropic forces of the country—all the agencies which tend to uplift and reclaim the degraded and ignorant, are in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon.” In word and deed, they believe that “to have Negro blood in the veins makes one unworthy of consideration, a social outcast, a leper, even in the church.” Second, the judges, juries, and court officials “are white men who share these prejudices. They also make the laws.”
By publishing “The Reason Why,” Wells rendered violence against Black people visible. But she did more than that. Through her sousveillance, Wells was determined to make plain how the stringent criminalization and mob murder perpetuated by white judges, juries, officials, and everyday citizens rested on a form of white supremacist Christianity that had legal and political power. Resisting this religio-racial order was an intellectual process of excavation and truth-telling.
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“There are no victims at WWAV. We claim the power we were born with.” My dear friend and Women With A Vision (WWAV) executive director Deon Haywood uttered these sentences when WWAV was embroiled in grassroots organizing to stop the criminalization of Black women in post-Katrina New Orleans. WWAV had been founded in 1989 by eight Black women in response to the deafening silence surrounding the Black AIDS epidemic. After the storm, the WWAV foremothers worked to render visible another life-threatening blow: the rounding up of sex workers under the state’s draconian “crime against nature” statute, which mandated sex offender registration for periods of fifteen years to life. After a five-year fight, WWAV secured a federal ruling against the state of Louisiana and the removal of nearly nine hundred people from the registry.
It took me several years (and Deon repeating those sentences to me many times over) before I could hear the searing religio-racial analysis that she was levying—that is, before I understood these sentences as principles in the tradition of Ida B. Wells’s 1893 sousveillance at the Columbian Exposition. When she first spoke them, Deon was describing the grassroots organizing strategy that WWAV had settled on to challenge the “crime against nature” statute. WWAV’s NO Justice project was led, like the organization itself, by the people most targeted by mass criminalization. Together, they decided to forego the expected affective performance of carefully scripted testimonies of victimization to rally sympathy. Instead, they threw the whole of their lives up as the precondition for change. And they won.
WWAV was not a place to tell stories about the fall and about sin, about women polluted and deplored—about how sometimes these same women could be saved and redeemed. This was the first meaning of “There are no victims at WWAV.” By standing in their own power, WWAV participants refused using the grammar of the victim script to order the story of their lives. “We are not victims.”
They also did this after systematically being denied the ability to be victims. Do you know how many times women call the cops because they are being beaten by their partners and there are no services, no nothing in their communities, and then they are the ones who end up in the back of the cop car? “We are not victims.” This second meaning of “no victims” exposed the racialized and gendered logics that undergirded the victim narrative—logics that got a boost in New Orleans from the enduring (and sometimes overtly) religious feel of the anti-trafficking movement and from post-Katrina relief efforts before that. The stories shared at WWAV all bore witness to a single uncomfortable religio-racial truth: In the newNew Orleans, as throughout American history, a Black woman was what a victim was not.
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Thinking about Ida B. Wells’s “The Reason Why” and WWAV’s “No Victims” together has also helped me to hear a subtle yet persistent inflection of the question, Is this all there is? When do the surveillance and sousveillance stop? When do we get to live and thrive, not just survive?
The point of this work is not simply to shift the scholarly religion gaze away from Black women’s bodies and onto their intellectual labors to render visible the religiosity of white supremacy in the United States—though that is important! Nor is it even just to appreciate and understand the tactics of excavation through which these Black feminist practices have been able to endure. “The Reason Why” and “No Victims” both lay bare the violence of America’s religio-racial problem in order to build the world otherwise. Truth-telling leads to praxis. Ida B. Wells did this with passing strangers across a desk in the Haitian pavilion; WWAV did it in the street-based needle exchanges turned sex offender story circles turned front porch conversations. These are the intimacies of being and being-together from which new worlds emerge.
I emphasize this momentum, indeed obligation, to bring Black feminist theory into everyday practice in order to keep in check a certain romanticism. Truth-telling is bone-deep, essential work. It is also survival work. We must never mistake the work undertaken in order to persist for the world-building transformation of living and thriving. Grappling with this obligation to praxis in my own scholarship and activism has forced me to ask two questions: (1) How does one square the impulse to avoid reducing Black life to the quotidian terror that structures the everyday, with the brutal facticity of anti-Black violence and death revealed throughout history? And (2) at what points do attempts to imagine otherwise actually serve to undermine the ever-shifting intersections of intimate, community, and state violence? These questions require new answers every day.
Many hands make light work. “The Reason Why” and “No Victims” are challenges; they are also invitations. What theories, methods, and longstanding interpretations of religion will be called into question through a sustained engagement with this dark sousveillance (that is in many cases watching us)? How are our projects extending, even if unwittingly, the pernicious gaze of co-constituted white supremacy and Christianity that this Black feminist tradition so swiftly diagnoses? What new forms of scholarship and praxis might be engendered if/when we critically engage these generations-honed theories of race and religion? How can we work as accomplices for life, liberation, and thriving otherwise? Where will we shine light? What must be kept out of the frame? What can we build together in the shadows?