I Want New Dreams: On Rachel Jeantel and Citizenship

There was a friend I had once and we spent – in my 20/20 hindsight perhaps – too much time together. Meeting my last year of undergrad, our camaraderie, our communion, genuinely moved me deeply. Even today, maybe, still. But throughout our time together – dinners and lunches, walking and talking – there was a twofold uncertainty: I of his feelings for me and me, my feelings for him. Those days, my life was filled with living into the category of “church boy,” directing choirs and playing the Hammond B-3’s for fun…and income. The son of a preacher man working on my own future as clergy, my commitment to seeing this dude everyday for hours, for talking to him and wishing him the best when times were good – and the worst when he upset me – I did not know how to move forward when I eventually told him that, yes, I loved him and he replied that, no, he was not – and never had been – gay. That day assisted my decision to never again enter into some sorta fuzzy friendship, to never again allow bygones to be bygones, to never again allow what is unnamed to fester until one day it bursts, leaving everyone hurt from emotional shrapnel and lacerations. It was that experience that allowed me to begin making my way out of closets, to disclose my emotions to trusted folks, to live into a sense of truth telling that could be liberatory. It was not, however and unfortunately, the end of such emotional sadness.


I was heartbroken. As I scrolled through different profiles – clicking the ones featuring those whom I considered cute – I eventually happened upon a profile that read in part, “no fats/no fems.” It was the first time I was confronted with what I suspected to be true, a sentiment I was able to hold at bay for what seemed a lifetime because I’d not made my foray into the dating world. Previous to such confrontation, I’d blame my lack of dating on big things like my religious beliefs, or my not being ready to meet anyone, my general fear and shame, but certainly not my big body. But then “no fats/no fems” staring back at me in all its inanimate glaring glory. The more I clicked on profiles, the more I saw it, the more it seemed to be not an anomalous idea but a normative way of thinking, a shibboleth, a rite of rhetorical gay passage. Sometimes it’d be written in ALL CAPS, so you’d know whoever wrote it was serious and, likely, fatigued from folks he’d consider fat and/or fem to constantly send messages to begin a conversation. I couldn’t understand it: here was an online dating community that was created because of exclusion from worlds using its own exclusionary practices. I eventually, years later, settled upon the fact that these modes of exclusion are the children’s bread, it is what we feast upon as our mode of sustenance. To exclude gives a sense of stability and normalcy in a world rife with upheaval and tumult. The undesirous nature of fats and fems is a displacement, a theological and philosophical gentrification of sorts, the degradation and evacuation of those whom purportedly lack the normative properties, deeming them vulvar, shapeless, wily, queer.


We have witnessed examples of intense displacements last week. These displacements are what empire produces, are what empire creates, in order to keep peoples forever asking the wrong questions, forever waging battle against each other rather than targeting and attacking the institutional structures that create inequities. So on the one hand: key provisions in the Voting Rights Act were struck down by the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) with several states immediately beginning advance voter ID and redistricting laws that would disproportionately and negatively impact voters of color; the SCOTUS made it more difficult for employees to challenge harassment and discrimination; the SCOTUS also declared you no longer have the right to remain silent and they refused to accept Native Tribal determination which jeopardizes the subsistence of tribal community through adoptive practices. But on the other hand: the SCOTUS overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), citing it as discriminatory because citizens are supposed to have equal protection under law.


Could things not be more explicit? Empire toys with our flesh, desiring of us vulnerability, exposure and submission to its will. Empire utilizes our flesh for its own purposes, for the strengthening of itself over and against the needs, the desires, of peoples. Empire is the production of competition. It allows some of us to go to good schools and learn and have good jobs and “strong” families. It creates the conditions where many of us have substandard educations (like in Philadelphia where over 3700 teachers, principals, teacher aids, nurses and other staff will not have a job come Fall 2013) and live in perpetual poverty while never challenging the fact that there is no state in this union where one could work 40 hours a week earning minimum wage and supply for their own or a family’s needs. And all this in order to proliferate the inequities and the structural coherence of the nation-state enacted through the dispersement of violent and violative force, through the promise and proliferation of terror throughout the world. But because we want to be citizens, because we desire recognition and protection under law, we contend against each other without ever asking more fundamental questions about what it is we desire, who it is we wish to be. This is the game of empire, the ruse of the promises of citizenship. If citizenship protects under law, perhaps now we can begin considering what lawlessness looks like and what the productivity of fugitivity in our times is. Because we are here, at this moment in time, where we are granted the privilege of seeing, with grave acuity and clarity, the vulgar means employed for nation-states to give and withhold “rights” to individuals, seemingly at its whims.


She raised her right hand, swore on a sacred text that she would tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help her any deity that would listen. And it was not even minutes later that the denigration of Rachel Jeantel began. Something about her purportedly feisty nature, her rolling eyes and sucked teeth, her resistance to belittlement that bothered lots of folks watching coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. Jeantel was the last one, we know of course, who spoke with her friend Trayvon Martin before his being murdered by Zimmerman but watching coverage of the case, one would think that Jeantel herself was the perpetrator. Her voice inflections analyzed, her speech patterns splayed, her body size and color ridiculed on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, comments sections of news stories, blogs and by the mainstream media. Cries and shrills and charges that “she should’ve had better preparation!” – coupled with the concern that maybe she is illiterate? or perhaps has lead poisoning and eats too much McDonald’s? – seemed to largely miss the point that in these United States of America, one could perform the most staid and respectable negro stereotype and still be razed with charges of being something other than human. This is as true for Rachel Jeantel as it was for Trayvon Martin; as true for Michelle Obama as it is for, yes, even Clarence Thomas. It is the inescapable fact of blackness that calls forth this sorta misrecognition.


The caricaturing and criticizing of Jeantel hurt me deeply and I began to wonder what was beneath the surface of all the jokes and memes and slurs. The negative reactions to Jeantel’s body, skin color, speech, education, are fundamentally about citizenship, about belonging and displacement. What if the jokes about Rachel Jeantel rehearse a more general and nonspecific feeling of displacement from the bounds – or brush up against the limits – of the concept of citizenship? Not even simply being a witness could protect from cross examinations that sought nothing other than to dehumanize. There was no respect for Jeantel’s personhood on that stand, no desire to get to the heart or truth of any matter. No. Don West had no problem – in the service of his client and, thus, his finances – to make of Rachel an abstract value, a general equivalence, attempting to liquidate her of all personhood. And what was said about her language, body, skin, sartorial stylings, hair, affect and knowledge make apparent the fact that citizenship is existence not simply under – but also after – law, it is existence gained through giving away liberty to empire. We hear this often: we have to sacrifice freedom in our now moment in order to gain freedom in some other, future moment. It thus seems Slavoj Žižek is correct to say, “democracy can itself be a form of un-freedom.” The cacophonous choral response to Jeantel reminded me, yes, of the loud “no fats/no fems” of my own queer community: the impulse to disparage that which we fear we have the capacity to become. Folks lampooned Jeantel, it seems, because we are afraid of what it means to be put on display, to have the violations of empire publicized. We can’t hide from it when it is there for all of us to see. So then we choose. We choose to distance ourselves from it in hopes that that distance will protect us.


Christopher Dorner’s demise – former member of the Los Angeles Police Department – is but another illustration that we cannot be protected by empire, that colluding with the nation-state is not the grounds for liberation or justice. Dorner discovered that working as an agent for the state does not protect you from its violence. The moment you stop doing its bidding is the moment you become a threat to its persistence. I often wonder about the New York Police Department, the agents enacting his Stop and Frisk program, working under Michael Bloomberg. At what point will they say that it is not enough to have a job, to have income? At what point do those who are acting as agents of the state stop producing its violence for the cause of justice? Sure, Bloomberg believes the program not only works but also should be even more racially discriminatory in its practice. But would the program be effective if those charged to “protect and serve” actually did something closer to their job description?


Perhaps this is simply a theoretical dream, though I am heartened by the fact of unrest. In Cairo, Moral Mondays in North Carolina, and Taksim Square; in Karen Lewis’s Chicago, in Philadelphia through the Student Union and in Wendy Davis’s Texas. Can we hear it? Are we attuned to it? Is it possible that this unrest is occurring on a global scale as a way to speak back to inequity, to violence? This is a concern for us all. At what point do we say: voting in elections, getting married whether gay or straight, clamoring to attend good schools and to live in good neighborhoods is simply not enough. When do we say that we no longer will be exposed and violated flesh, ready for the empire’s use, abuse, exploitation? At what point do we try to figure out another way, a way of escape from the bondage and restrictions that citizenship requires of us? What is necessary, it seems, is a rupturing of the concepts we imagine are most desirous, are most seemingly inescapable. Fit, shapely, white, male, educated, rich: citizen. We need other words, other terms, other ways to be. What is needed is a new relationship to our flesh, which would also be a new relationship to personhood, to how we understand ourselves existing on the outside of and against empire, on the outside of and against citizenship. As resources are hoarded by the few who seek to maintain the balance of inequitable power, we have to think and live into other ways. This is a dream. But it can also be our reality. So who and what do we want to be?

36 thoughts on “I Want New Dreams: On Rachel Jeantel and Citizenship

  1. Hear, hear, Ashon. Wonderful column. Love the way you make and elaborate connections.

  2. i love this reading. connecting body politics, citizenship, empire, DOMA, Rachel Jeantel, the Voting Rights Act, etc. i’m in tears. i could (and will) pick this apart over days. thank you for this!

    1. thanks for sharing, Andrea … i enjoyed your writing! i’m glad folks all over the place are asking different kinds of questions …

    1. this is so true: “Together, the decisions communicate that there is a strong and well-orchestrated effort on the part of the state to make sure that white colonial property rights are maintained.” … yes! thanks for sharing your writing. as i said to Andrea above, i’m glad folks are asking these different questions, something to displace and come closer to a world we desire …

  3. This is liberatory thinking and writing. Beautiful. Indeed , “We need other words, other terms, other ways to be.”

  4. Earnest and incisive. I feel like this is a call to arms for a paradigm shift, among other things.

  5. A beautiful, insightful piece of writing for sure, just a little disappointed that a discussion of citizenship and empire in this country made no link or reference to undocumented folks, forever displaced, never really belonging here (in the U.S.) nor there (in their country of origin), forever vilified, sold the idea of the American Dream only to make it to the U.S. to be endlessly exploited.

    1. Thank you, T, for raising the concern about immigration and undocumented peoples. Trust, it was an omission of the head, but certainly not the heart. As I move forward, I will be intentional in including the very urgent concerns … seriously. It’s all so very interconnected. Thanks for the response … !

      1. Thank you for your response, Ashon! You are so very right: it is all very interconnected. We all intersect. You’re a beautiful writer and moving forward, I look forward to reading everything you write!

  6. This – the flow – it’s all connected it all matters and if we close our eyes and poo poo and think and say ‘not us, not me’ we don’t escape it. ‘all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream’ .ea poe. and dreams change things, change realities, change futures. Your words, your voice, the words we create, these change our dreams. Thank you for sharing this!

  7. The language in this piece is lush. I savored the words and read it carefully. It’s packed FULL of delicious ideas and realities to experience and discuss. No doubt it will be influencing whatever I write next. AMAZING!

  8. Oh oh, oh oh….you had me in tears!! I was just talking about this. When – shit what now??
    Thank You – You glorious soul. We are finding each other, slow as it may be.
    Thank You.

  9. Thank you for this beautifully written, meaningfully intersectional, thoughtful reflection on some of the most important issues of our present moment.

  10. Ashon,

    You conclude this essay by naming a few movements around the world that are raising dissenting voices; thank you for the sustenance. As a frequent reader of the CRC residing in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada), I want to share with you a movement from my home that demonstrates a similar tenacious, enraged and peaceful group of persons opposing Empire(s):

    ‘Water Wednesdays’ is a group of persons lead by First Nations leaders who meet at our local legislative buildings, weekly for nine weeks, to hold a sacred water ceremony; this brings attention to the water crises occurring in most, if not all, of our Northern First Nations’ communities and the increasing threat of water privatization.

    Hope you keep writing, naming and connecting,

    1. thanks, Lisa, for sharing this movement! it’s so very heartening to know that there are movements – both big and small, noticed and unnoticed – that are resisting the dominant narratives and frameworks for how we can be in the world. i’m glad folks are doing the tough, critical work towards justice. Water Wednesdays, indeed! thanks so much!

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