Black Escapism in Arthur Jafa’s “Dreams are Colder than Death”

Dreams Are Colder Than Death

The escape artist flashed by on a metallic blue motorcycle, pursued by a blur of pulsing red and blue lights. Drawn together by a sentiment exceeding mutual compassion, the sidewalk spectators stood inert, breaths and bodies taut with anticipation. For a moment, parts of us took flight alongside the fugitive, our lives reaching beyond the limits of our bodies; the moment did not last long. Soon he was on foot, bobbing and weaving past the threat of capture, circling the block, boxed in but refusing to surrender. The choreography of escape was altered as his body crashed onto the concrete, sustaining the friction of tense blue cloth, the pressure of cold metal, the bitterness of heated blood and antagonized sweat. There might’ve been a collective exhale, as we all stood watching, witnesses to our own fall and capture.

That we had been standing on the corner of Adam Clayton Powell and 130th, and that everyone in sight, besides the police, was Black, stood out to me in that moment. Some of us had urged the fugitive to run–Run! Our hearts leapt toward the sidewalk with his fall; a reminder that we were fallible. That even here–Here! in informal communion, closest to the bosom of Black America–we were not safe. As a routine police chase, this mundane moment marked itself as an extraordinary one, in which I served witness to the assertion of a claim to freedom.

This notion of witnessing was re-articulated for me during the recent viewing of Arthur Jafa’s Dreams are Colder than Death and a follow-up discussion between Jafa and panelists Christina Sharpe, Reina Gossett, and Tavia Nyongo at the International Center of Photography. Though the film touches on a range of topics explored by Black theory in regard to futurity, survival, and resistance, the act of escape remained a primary point of exploration not only through the viewing of Black fugitivity through art, music, dance, but in mundane movements that indicated tension between studied, self-contained calm and external chaos and pressure.

Articulated per Fred Moten’s analysis of fugitivity, the line of escape mapped out by the Black fugitive is a mobilization of political consciousness. In fugitivity lies a futuristic impulse to claim the not-yet-forged possibilities of existence. It is a mobilization of Black vitality, in which biomechanic and metaphysical forces are deployed to activate effort; an effort that is integral to claiming survival. It is in enacting such effort that agency is articulated.

Arthur Jafa’s Dreams are Colder than Death, is made up of a collection scenes that replicate this first-hand interaction with escape and survival. Jafa’s digitized portrayals of Black movement contain a quality of nostalgia, marking the film as an archival space set up for the recollection and documentation of Blackness. This documentary impulse should not be misinterpreted as an intent to recollect the already-lost past, rather, it should be viewed as an intentional effort to archive the very-much alive present that predicates what we are becoming.  

From the opening scene, flesh and body are set up as points of interrogation. Hortense Spillers’ voice inquires about the possibilities for recuperating that which is in danger of being lost: Black culture. Visually, we encounter moving Black bodies arcing through the air, somersaulting in reverse through time and space. This retrograde action is tied into Spillers’ question, one that incites anxiety about the ephemerality of Blackness, the mark of its susceptibility.

Spillers’ insight into lost flesh and dismemberment, through an intimate recollection of personal loss, is analogous to a later question she poses around the “intramural problem of slavery”. Spillers locates the Transatlantic Slave Trade within a set of relations that posit the trafficking of Black bodies as a cannibalistic dilemma and identifies this trade in human flesh as the “original sin”. But first, we must examine the flesh itself, partly through Spillers’ own analysis in addition to the flesh exposed by Jafa’s lens.

In Spillers’ work, specifically in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”, flesh is a starting place for a theoretical examination of the making and un-making of the Black body within the drama of racialization. Spillers’ invocation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is an important reminder of where the drama began. It is in the context of trade and exchange that Black flesh became marked and assigned differential subjecthood. The flesh, dismembered and reordered, preceded personhood, reduced to what Alexander Weheliye–in his own reading of Spillers–termed bare life.

Jafa’s focus on the moving body can be read as an attempt to re-engage in a dialogue of bare life. His focus upon flesh in its active and dormant states, demands attention to breath, activity, movement. He is opening up the grammar, per Spillers’ analysis, that enables Black legibility. Bare faces and flesh become the starting point for examining Blackness. Subjects are directly positioned in view of the lens, their bodies lingering on screen, not inviting examination, impervious to any set of logics that de-legitimizes their right to move, breathe, be still. In the grammar set up by Jafa, Black livelihood flourishes per a set of logics that prioritize subjectivity. Through their movements and gestures, the Black people that appear on Jafa’s screen “enunciate quotidian claims to survival, resilience, and possibility” (Campt 29). These claims demarcate a critical space in which subaltern voices can engage in self-making.

Fred Moten makes a concluding interrogation of the possibilities of survival. Love, per Moten, is where healing takes place. And like fugitivity, it offers escape and the rerouting, or the re-mapping of the enclosed landscape Blackness must navigate. Unlike fugitivity however, love holds a limitless expanse of futuristic potential; it offers space to fall down and rise with redemption.

Gender Amplified hosts Dear Daughter Remix Contest

Gender Amplified, an org founded and run by Barnard and BCRW alum Ebonie Smith, is hosting a remix contest for the metal band Halestorm. Check it out and share!


September 12, 2016–Halestorm and Gender Amplified have partnered to present the “Dear Daughter Remix Contest,” where fans have a chance to remix the track “Dear Daughter,” off Halestorm’s latest album Into The Wild Life for a chance to win $1000 and meet frontwoman Lzzy Hale. All remix styles are welcome. For more information and to enter to win, see link below!


Gender Amplified is a nonprofit organization that aims to celebrate Women in music production, raise their visibility and develop a pipeline for girls and young women to get involved behind the scenes as music producers. The movement also connects passion for music with technical skills that can be used in a wide range of scientific and arts based fields, areas in which Women are traditionally underrepresented. By organizing public events that foster healthy dialogue about the role gender plays in the music making process, Gender Amplified endeavors to give voice to a subculture of women who are using music technology to create their own music and perpetuate their unique identities.

“Fearless in an Austere Way:” Activist in Residence Reina Gossett talks Intersectionality, Prisons, and Pinkwashing

Reina Gossett is an activist, writer, community organizer, and the 2014-2016 Activist in Residence at BCRW. She is also the co-writer and co-director of the upcoming film “Happy Birthday, Marsha.”  “Happy Birthday, Marsha” tells the story of Black  trans artist and activist Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson  in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall Riots. In January, Reina spoke with Barbara Smith and Charlene Carrutherson a panel on Black Feminism at the national LGBTQ conference Creating Change. Here are some highlights from the discussion: Gossett spoke about the reality of heightened violence for Black trans women. She stated that individuals must address anti-Black racism in discourse on transphobia, in addition to other issues such as the criminalization of sex work and HIV. She focused on the relationary aspects of many of these issues stating “we can’t get rid of gender norms [or the] gender binary…without getting rid of everything that constitutes it.” LOGO-Josh-MacPhee-25 Gossett also named the  connections between anti-Black violence and the policing of queer and trans people. She called on activists to  dismantle the “white, gay assimilationist push” for one-dimensional, singular issues. Liberation for queer people is not about “making prisons and ICE gay friendly.” Finally,  Gossett addressed pinkwashing by the Israeli government. Pinkwashing is the branding strategies used by the Israeli government to market itself as LGBTQ-friendly and distract from its violent military occupation of Palestine. Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.32.26 AM   "From June Jordan to James Baldwin, the struggle for Palestinian liberation has always been a Black feminist issue…We’ve always been there.” Most importantly, she states “there can’t be pride for some of us if there isn’t liberation for all of us.”   Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 11.32.17 AM  

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PHOTOS from the Nina Ansary event: The Untold Story of Iranian Women

On November 5th, Nina Ansary ‘89 joined us to speak about her new book, Jewels of Allah. Ansary dismantles narratives of the subjugated post-revolutionary Iranian woman through story-telling of their feminist, anti-regime work within the public domain.

Check out some photos from the event:

Nina Ansary

Iranian woman tells her story about growing up

Nina Ansary Tina Campt

Nina Ansary

Nina Ansary

See more photos of the event on the BCRW Facebook page.

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What We’re Reading at BCRW, the Throwback Edition

For our October edition of What We’re Reading at BCRW series, we have taken a nostalgic turn. All of our suggestions on books, movies, tv shows, music this time around are recommendations to our 18-year-old selves. What culture bites do we wish we’d been consuming as incoming college freshman or newly independent adults?


Carly, Che and Tina all recommend Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is a favorite of ours for a lot of reasons, but Tina put it well: “Had I had the Buffy series in my life at age 18, I would have been fierce. Buffy is deeply queer, deeply feminist, deeply fierce!”

Carly and DaMonique love love Friday Night Lights. It’s a heartfelt, seriously good drama series that is about so much more than football. Carly credits FNL with providing her enough emotional support to make it through the final edits of her senior thesis.

DaMonique also thinks all college kids should check out A Different World.


And now, we bring you an onslaught of book recommendations.

DaMonique has been reading and rereading Loraine Hainburry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black all summer. (Also, check out Nina Simone’s song of the same name!)

things fall apartAvi recommends Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison. According to Avi, Allison’s book insists that the experiences and knowledge from our lives—particularly our embodied knowledge—is valuable and worthy of consideration, especially in intellectual environments.

Tami provided us these offerings: “I’d recommend reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to my younger self. It’s beautifully written and gives an introduction to many of the themes (race, colonialism, violence—structural and otherwise) that would come to shape my academic work.”

Che found Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness engaging, in every sense of the word.

Melissa often finds herself returning to the beautiful, wise prose of All About Love by bell hooks. (Seriously, check out All About Love’s goodreads quotes page.)

Emma loved Calling Dr. Lauraa graphic novel by Nicole J. Georges.

Dania recommends Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde.

On the music front, Tami gave us this: “I think all people attempting something exciting and potentially scary (like starting college!) should listen to Sondre Lerche’s ‘Everyone’s Rooting for You’.”

And Kat recommends the thoughtful sex-positivity of Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross’s web series.



What We’re Reading at BCRW

Last week, BCRW Program Manager Avi asked me, resignedly and with despair, “Did you see the new #SayHerName? The news of another trans woman of color’s murder?” The body of Shade Schuler, 22-year-old trans woman, had just been found (August 12) in Dallas. In that moment last week, she was the 13th trans person murdered in 2015. That public number has since increased to 17 with the recent murders of Tamara Dominguez, Elisha Walker, Amber Monroe, and Kandis Capri. Chase Strangio, ACLU attorney representing Chelsea Manning, declared to Democracy Now a “state of emergency for the trans community.”

We have conversations like this a lot in the office, back and forth about the latest traumatic news: “Did you hear..?” “Did you see…?”  These are conversations that never really end—they’re just picked up with the next hashtag, the next name, the next murder, the next protest. Sometimes we have some new analysis to add to this revolving door of a conversation, but mostly we are just saying out loud our own renewed hurt.

It feels as if we are perpetually discussing recent news of another murder of a trans woman of color, or the renewed attention to protests in cities such as Ferguson, and just generally the anti-black and anti-trans violence that has had a seemingly persistent presence in media.  We, whose social media feeds are full of social activist voices, are bombarded with seemingly endless images and stories of violence, anger and despair. We are in trauma, in perpetuity.

This is perhaps stating the obvious, but here at BCRW, we—as individuals and as a Center—view study and learning as a critical part of movements and resistance work. We were struck by the support our daily BCRW conversations provided us, and wanted to extend that support beyond the walls of our offices.

So, here’s our idea: A semi-regular resource list, published on BCRW’s blog, that offers things to read, watch, and listen to. These can be resources that point people in the direction of how to be involved or act, or that provide us with information, perspectives, and frameworks for working through the issues, for wading through the daily trauma of reading the news. We hope to submit to conversations similar to our own, and to support the social media and activist momentum that has been generating in response to our current moment’s anti-black, anti-trans violence.


Avi, Program and Media Manager, is reading Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (thanks to Kim Hall for the recommendation!) and Lillith’s Brood by Octavia Butler.

Kim, Barnard English and Africana Professor and member of BCRW Advisory Board, says she’s been revisiting the work of her colleague Saidiya Hartmann.

Research Assistant Carly is watching What happened, Miss Simone, a 2015 documentary about the music and activism of Nina Simone currently streaming on Netflix, reading the short story and novella collection Counternarratives (2015) by John Keene and “How Black Reporter’s Report on Black Death”, an article that  makes visible a stunning post-Ferguson 2014 reality: black death has become a mainstream reporting beat, by NPR’s Gene Demby.

citizen an american lyricTina, BCRW Director, had this to say in response to my call for recommendations: “Oddly, I find myself with so little time to read, I often ask myself if I’m really a professor. So rather than sustained reading, I actually get an awful lot out of lingering on particularly striking passages that I find myself coming back to for inspiration. Right now, I’ve been returning again and again to Dispossession: The Performative in the Political by Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou. There’s an amazing exchange between them on ‘the refusal to be refused,’ which I’ve been thinking and writing about. It’s really helpful to me in thinking about recent events.”

Tami, Associate Director of the Center, is currently reading the book of poems Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.


Anne recently “read a wonderful interview with Miss Major on Autostraddle” that she recommends.

Miss Major via

Miss Major via

Che, our Community Archivist and Student Coordinator, offered this contribution: “I’ve been thinking a lot, strangely, about racialization as animalization and how the devaluation of black life plays out anthropomorphically (“the Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, “— Frantz Fanon) , and how black radical thinkers from Frederick Douglass to Fanon to Angela Davis have challenged how blackness is figured outside the racial and colonial category of the human and placed close to the category of the animal (which is problematic in of itself)…  A book that I read that really made me think about race, animality and queerness is Mel Chen’s Animacies.” (Che is currently writing something for The New Inquiry about how blackness and abolition stages a crisis for the human/animal divide. Once it’s done, we’ll be sure to share it!)

As a group, we would like to acknowledge the bitter irony of our post as it relates to Chelsea Manning’s current situation, as she is found guilty for possessing expired toothpaste and LGBT reading material. From Kim: “Here we are celebrating reading and consuming culture as a way to expand our sense of the world—as we should be—and she is being threatened with torture, i.e. [indefinite] solitary confinement for reading.  Aaaaarrrgh.”

Che pointed out that Chelsea Manning is actually doing the introduction to the forthcoming 2nd edition of Captive Genders about the prison industrial complex (domestic and imperial) and gender self-determination. From Che: “The book highlights how torture and sexual violence of U.S. prisons is legal and how trans and gender non-conforming people are subject to solitary confinement for transgressing the gender binary (which the prison system reproduces).”

Carly Crane (’15) is a Research Assistant at BCRW. 

NYC to Ferguson: A Reflection

Last Tuesday night, thousands of protestors filled Union Square and marched throughout New York City, shouting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and “No justice, no peace!” in response to the Michael Brown verdict. The day before, history was repeated as the grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri failed to indict Darren Wilson, and yet another white officer was set free after killing an innocent black teenager.

The protest began on the northwest corner of Union Square, as a crowd of people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds held up signs saying “Black Lives Matter” and “Indict Darren Wilson.” Even before the march began, I witnessed the first of our obstacles: conservative news network reporters. One journalist stood in the middle of the crowd shouting at two black protestors for refusing to answer his questions. One of the demonstrators responded, “This is not about you. You are not getting shot at. When you start getting shot at, call me. Now please leave. Get out of here.”

Photo by Priyanka Bhatt

Protestors gather in Union Square. Photo by Priyanka Bhatt.

The group of over 3,000 protestors marched around Union Square, on Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, through Times Square, and across the Manhattan Bridge. One section of the group also walked through Lincoln Tunnel. A police barricade was set up at Williamsburg Bridge, where NYPD refused to let protestors cross. A group of white protestors responded by trying to break down the barriers and asked people to help them. Several people of color were arrested as the police officers at the barricade became aggressive, leading most of the demonstrators to turn around in the opposite direction. For most of the journey, NYPD officers played games on their phones as they walked by us, groaning and rolling their eyes as if we were children they were forced to baby sit. Many joked and pointed their fingers, attempting to reduce our movement against racial injustice and hate crimes to a laughing matter.

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Women’s History Month Lecture: Joan Wallach Scott

BCRW’s annual Women’s History Month Lecture this year featured renowned historian Joan Wallach Scott. However, as she herself admitted, Scott is often considered to be a political philosopher; more “traditional” historians (read: old university men), as she put it, categorize her as such with the intention of criticizing her and perhaps de-legitimizing her approach to history. As a feminist studies student and enamored attendee of her lecture, I’d grant her the label out of admiration for her work in women’s histories and her use of gender as a productive lens for historical analysis. Her lecture was as dense in information as any history lecture I’d ever attended–I don’t think I stopped taking notes at any point while she spoke, but Scott’s approach to history is one of self-conscious (hyper?)criticism. By this I mean she is not only critical of the more traditional historical narratives (in her 1986 article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” she established a methodological framework for using gender theories in historical analysis, opening up a space for alternative narratives) but also of feminist studies and feminist narratives, particularly when “feminism is produced as a kind of politics.”

Much of her lecture asked us to examine and critically interrogate feminist politics and assumptions. For example, the assumption that secularism and feminism are inevitably aligned due to their mutual “progressiveness.” She questions the notion that secularism is the necessary “common sense” prerequisite for a proliferation of feminist thought and feminist policies, when historically secular ideologies and policies have been working against moves made toward equality and inclusiveness. In the sections of her lecture that really had an impact on me, she urged us to question these increasingly “awkward alignments” between feminism and “narrow strands” of liberal secularists’ ideology; take, for example, the Democratic party’s re-branding as the “political party fighting the war on women.” This assumed solidarity between “secular” and “feminist,” Scott warned, stifles the radical activism or progressiveness of feminist groups as they struggle to maintain their coalitions with established “liberal” and “progressive” institutions.

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On DJing: A Workshop with DJ Reborn

This blog post is part of a series of student reflections on the Gender Amplified Music Festival from September 2013. 

Titled “Turtablism 101” the Gender Amplified program, this workshop at last month’s day-long music festival filled quickly. DJ Reborn, a versatile artist who has spun for the likes of Lauryn Hill, Common, and The Roots, used her equally impressive background as an educator to engage nearly every participant in the session. Introducing herself, she explained that as a child, music represented for her a means of escape, and she soon became drawn to its powerful capacity to change the energy among a crowd of people. “I’m like a sonic practitioner,” she stated in a tone serious enough to reveal the dedication with which she approaches her work. The fact of being a woman in the male-dominated field of DJing only motivated DJ Reborn to pursue her craft more strictly; when she moved to New York, she explained, she began to work at DJing with the same systematic rigor as a worker in a nine-to-five job.


Before asking participants to introduce themselves, DJ Reborn concluded, “I was a really shy person, and DJing is a way for me to communicate without saying anything.” As a black woman, she said, she feels her music selections are doubly significant. Making conscious choices about which songs to include in a set and which to leave out, she remains creative throughout this process. She offered an example: if the lyrics of a song are misogynistic but the track is otherwise appealing, DJ Reborn will use the instrumental version.

This aspect of the discussion seemed to resonate well with the participants in the room, many of whom were young women of color. Some individuals who hailed from Black Girls Rock had already learned the basics of DJing and others sought to connect with more female DJs. DJ Reborn facilitated that process in a hands-on manner by inviting everyone to take turns DJing behind the booth at the front of the room. After a group-wide pledge in which everyone raised their dominant hand and repeated in unison, “I do solemnly swear to be the best DJ that I can be…until 1 o’clock or however long this session is,” participants filed to the front. One after another, they stated their DJ name–if they had chosen one–and, after selecting a song, tentatively scratched the standard four beats per measure before releasing the vinyl record with the help of DJ Reborn.

Speaking to the larger theme of the music festival, Reborn addressed some of the gender dynamics at play in the music industry. She also shared her belief that unlike men, who tend to spin for their own enjoyment, women DJs can better intuitively read a crowd. Succinctly, she imparted sound advice to the workshop attendees: “Don’t just play the hits.”

Here is a recap of the Gender Amplified Music Festival:

Emilie Segura is a senior at Barnard majoring in sociology and is a BCRW Research Assistant.


Plan C: Why We Need a New Way to Talk About Birth Control

In the last few years, the topics of sexuality, birth control, and abortion have been making headlines in the mainstream media. Fiercely debated, hotly contested and often misrepresented, facts about women’s health are so often obscured by moral judgment and urban legend. This past Thursday, the New York Times front page featured an article entitled “Ready Access to Plan B Pills in City Schools,” written by Anemona Hartocollis and Michaelle Bond. The piece reports on the availability of the Plan B One-Step pill, an emergency contraceptive, in New York City schools in the wake of the Obama administration’s allowance of over the counter availability of the pill to women of any age (well, sort of).  While the article does not outright condemn the federal decision or New York City’s preexisting provision that students in high school can have access to emergency contraception, its ostensibly neutral tone on the issue is fraught with hints of shaming young women who utilize this option and the institutions that make it available.

Image of hand picking up box labeled "Morning After Pill" next to tampons on a shelf

While relaying important information about these policies, the article problematically plays into the media shock value of teenage sex and the possibility of schools condoning such activity. Since the piece highlights the rebellion of young women throughout, the authors distort the reality of why Plan B and other birth control methods need to be available in schools, and instead emphasize a desire to protect deviant young women. For example, the article briefly mentions the fact that the majority of research has demonstrated that emergency contraception does not increase rates of sexual activity, but taking up far more space in the piece are the opinions of others who believe that emergency contraception does increase “risky” sexual behavior, including a single teenage girl who thought teens at her school were having more sex since Plan B became available.

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