on Black Age

December 2022

Habiba Ibrahim is a Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle and is the author of Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). She recently discussed her second book, Black Age: Oceanic Lifespans and the Time of Black Life (NYU Press, 2021), with Courtney Murray, D’Angelo Bridges, and Eunice Toh, PhD students in English and African American Studies at Penn State and Rachael DeWitt, PhD student at UC Davis. Black Age foregrounds “age” as a significant yet understudied theoretical concept in Black Studies and literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Ibrahim investigates how Black age acts as a technology of modernity from the nineteenth century onward, suspending Blackness in a hegemonic, hierarchical strata of untimeliness. Through Black feminism and the field’s engagement with gender, psychoanalysis, historical narrative, and time, Ibrahim offers Black age as a tool that reclaims the existence and possibility of alternative Black life.

In this conversation, Ibrahim speaks about her writing process, her engagement with Black Studies, Hortense Spillers’ “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” and the “oceanic,” the ongoing impacts of racial capitalism, and age as a site of contestation and liberation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Courtney Murray (CM): This is your second book after publishing Troubling the Family in 2012. How did you transition from your first book, which deals with multiracialism, to Black Age? How did the first book impact the trajectory of the second one? What influenced you to move toward the afterlife of slavery, which heavily resonates with the nineteenth century?

Habiba Ibrahim (HI): Both books are unrelated on the face of it, and so it's a good place to begin. My first book was about the cultural politics of multiracialism in the 1990s—very removed from the questions I take up in Black Age. But the end of my first book considers Barack Obama’s first successful campaign to be President of the United States, and his victory speech after he wins in 2008. During the victory speech, he tells the story of Ann Nixon Cooper, who is 106 years old. In her old age, she managed to vote for the first Black president, which is something she would never have thought she would have been able to do in her very long lifetime. That particular moment invited me to think more deeply about how the Obama administration relied on the symbolic value of age and Black womanhood. And what is it exactly that the aged Black female subject is asked to do? So I had been thinking in terms of what Black agedness means symbolically and how it had been shored up for particular nationalist purposes when Trayvon Martin was killed. That particular event marked an end of the era that Obama epitomized, the “post-racial” era. We knew it partly because of the questions that were being circulated in social media about what it means to be a Black child. Black childhood isn't recognizable; there's something about the Black child that makes childhood itself inscrutable; there's something about the inability to see childhood through the embodiment of Black children. The end of the first book and the beginning of the second book are connected by a liminal space between the end of an era and the beginning of another. In that space, Black age became conspicuous. The question is, what does it mean for Black people in general to have an age? What happens to the category of age at the site of Black embodiment? And how have we arrived at this particular contradiction in which Black ages are at once naturalized but also conspicuous as a historical problem?

CM: Thank you for that answer. Your two projects make me think of the term “era” as a concept of age as both a mode of time and a period of renaissance or renewal during which Black people participate in reclamation. For example, Black people reclaimed moments of age through hashtags like #blackgirlmagic and #blackboyjoy, and there were people of all different ages using these hashtags. It wasn't just about showing joy, achievement, and success of little Black girls or boys, but also Black women were reclaiming their connection to girlhood, and Black boys, vice versa, Black men and vice versa.

HI: Yes, age’s capaciousness is evident in Black sociality – so Black girlhood is not just about childhood. Black women reclaim Black girlhood. With regard to #blackboyjoy, Black men can feel a connection to what boyhood is announcing in that hashtag. A key aspect of this book is countering the abuses of age with a reclamation that fits the way Black people understand their own lives.

Eunice Toh (ET): In your introduction to Black Age, you foreground several important terms and definitions to your project – we have age, lifespans, oceanic, gender, history, and the untimely. So for those G19 readers who might not have read the book, could you share a bit about how some of these terms work within the umbrella analytic of Black Age? For me, I'm particularly interested in the oceanic and how it evokes the ecological.

HI: Eunice, thank you for your questions about the key terms that helped me think about Blackness analytically and Black age politically. The oceanic is a key one that comes up in the title of the book, and I take it from the Black feminist theorist Hortense Spillers' 1987 essay, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” which is to say that I'm thinking really closely with Spillers throughout this work. Spillers is thinking about a national grammar, which the Black female maternal body is the vestibule toward but also the exclusion from western humanism. In order to think about that, Spillers situates us at the Atlantic Ocean, specifically during the transatlantic slave trade, to think about what exactly occurred to reconstitute embodiment and form modern Blackness as ungendered. The oceanic is connected to Sigmund Freud's idea of the oceanic feeling. And so if you can imagine, during the transatlantic slave trade Black bodies have been transformed into cargo, stowed in slave ships, dispossessed of not only bodily autonomy, but also the capacity to imagine oneself as individuated. Spillers mentions being in the “nowhere” of the oceanic, and Sigmund Freud thinks of the oceanic feeling as something of a problem. The normative adult subject is one who has developed a healthy individuated ego, which is to say that it gets through the stage in which the child feels an undifferentiated connection to the mother, and specifically to the mother's body. One moves from that infantile stage of feeling undifferentiated to the individuation of the Ego as a healthy adult. The oceanic feeling is Freud's grappling with this question of religiosity; how is it that a healthy adult with a healthy ego can feel connected to something other than himself? How does the oceanic feeling, which is regressive for Freud, factor into the life of a healthy adult stage? Spillers evokes Freud, and what arises from that, I argue, is a question about development that's embedded in Freud's assumptions about what it means to be an individual and an adult. That one moves past a stage of infantile non-differentiation not only has a lot to do with how we think about psychoanalytic thought, but is endemic to all ways in which we think about liberal personhood, par excellence. So I go to the oceanic to dwell on this idea of how development or the concept of development is key to the nowhere of the Middle Passage, and how modern Blackness itself had been constituted.

What if modern Blackness is not just ungendered but also unaged? If one is undifferentiated by virtue of being cargo, which then can be exchanged for other cargo, if one is dispossessed of a sense of development that we associate with being in social and human time, then how exactly do we think about Black time in the course of its undoing? Age is connected to these larger scales of time in terms of development, and I think of development as key to the way that the Western modern world has fashioned a logic of humanity. So development is geopolitical, as the transatlantic slave trade would suggest.

Rachael DeWitt (RD): Your book is clearly organized around key figures and keywords. What is your method for structuring the project and its many texts and terms? What were some of the book’s earlier organizational phases?

HI: As I was working through the process of structuring the book, and the underlying method that structures the book, I wanted to map out constant contestation through figures that illustrate how Black age has been imagined, to explain something about how Black age has allowed for a particular kind of labor to occur. So each chapter more or less is structured with two figures that allow us to think about a contestation of being or a contestation of orientation or a contestation of a particular mode of reason.

The first chapter is about body-snatchers and shape-shifters, which specifically signal the long history of Western conquest and transatlantic slavery. Body snatching is connected to a particular logic of maturity and adulthood and authority that is juxtaposed with what it means to become fungible in the process of Western modern violence. To become a commodity with exchange value, and thus to become something that is open for the fantasies of the marketplace exists in tension with the body-snatcher as it is connected to a particular logic that yokes property to human existence. Shape-shifting is about being fungible, but also being able to shift in a manner that isn't only dictated by the market, but also to the inventiveness of being something else. Abuse is in contestation with reclamation, which not only allows for the reclaiming of what had been dispossessed of, but also an inventiveness of another way to be. Using fantastic or supernatural figures to do that was a way of bringing to the fore this question of what it means to be human. And many of these figures aren’t discernibly human, so it begs the question of what we imagine humanity to be.

D'Angelo Bridges (DB): Our next question deals with the impact you envisioned for Black Age in Black Studies. That is, you situate your book in several sub-disciplines and Black movements, especially in the rise and development of Black Feminism. Where do you imagine Black Age makes its most important intervention in Black Studies writ large?

HI: That’s a good question. In terms of Black Studies, the contribution is to ask how we think of Blackness through a category that has been so naturalized we couldn’t even see it. We treat age as almost being below the status of what can be theorized. So the first contribution is to say that this is a category with a history–it’s not natural, and it only seems like it is because of its ideological framings. The task was to get through the ideological layers that bury age as a historical construct to ask how exactly it has become that, and how do we see some of its historicity in the present.

With regard to Black feminism specifically: Black gender has been deployed to think about the conditions, limitations, and possibilities of social inclusion and also what it means to theorize about Black embodiment and strategies toward Black liberation. With that, I wanted to think about the conditions of possibility that led Spillers to think the way she did in 1987. How exactly does someone like Spillers come up with a concept of ungendering in 1987? And so it seemed to me that one of the things that has gone under remarked upon is the way that analytical terms, arguments, and contributions of Black Feminism of the 1970s and 80s relied on this interest in development. In the academy during the 1980s, Black Feminist Studies in some ways begins to define Black Studies. But what also happens in the academy during the 1980s is a kind of disciplining that allows for a separation between the critical interventions of Black Feminist thought, and the conditions that made such interventions possible. This could be understood as a question about the fetishization of poststructuralist practices at the time, what it meant to separate “theory” from “criticism.” I’m interested in what it might have felt like to be a Black Feminist scholar in the academy, and to realize that your discernments, your modes of inquiry, the things that matter to you as a scholar and intellectual, that led to the reshaping of literary studies and Black Studies, don't matter. There must have been this feeling like time was out of joint. This is, of course, a speculative moment in the book. I'm being conjectural. But feeling out of time, in that context, might lead you to rethink the connection between Black gender and the modern world, right? It might ask you to rethink how we do historiographical work. “Mama's Baby, Papa’s Maybe” is methodologically innovative. It takes on the language and interventions of poststructuralism in order to intervene in the ways that social history had been thinking of the recuperation of subjective life. It's doing a number of things at once. What makes you decide to take that on, if not for a particular sense of what you're experiencing, institutionally and socially at the time? What did it mean to be told that you're not a proper adult? Not that anyone used that term. But you're not a proper poststructuralist, you're not a proper theorist. You're not a proper intellectual, you're not a proper academic, you're still somehow below what the ideal version of those things are in a hierarchy within an institution that's hierarchical.

CM: You have at least two chapters that engage Black Feminism and Black masculinity. Did this create any personal and professional challenges for you when employing Black Feminism in this way?

HI: In the moment I was writing, there seemed to be a return of a particular version of Black Feminism of the past, a kind of return to the socialist strains of 1970s-era Black radical feminism. For a kind of Black radical feminism, the goal wasn't to think about gender as that which separates us. It was a way to think about how to center those subjects who are the least possessed, those who are on the margins, and then focus on their experiences and the needs that those subjects have. I wanted to think about the ongoing possibility of gender as a lens through which to see interlocking oppressions systemically. That interlocking includes being gendered female or being gendered in a nonnormative way. I wanted to explore how Black Feminism doesn’t center particular gender categories like when Spillers calls for the Black man/male to say yes to the female within at the end of “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” I wanted to imagine the most liberatory version of Black sociality possible without doing away with gender. And so it's not that I don't recognize the specificity of my own experiences. But I do want to think about how exactly the divisions that constitute our social categories reproduce the logic of racial capitalism. I wanted to allow the categories that we have to bleed into each other so that we can imagine other ways of being, see alternatives for existence that are currently here but not always discernible.

CM: That leads nicely to another disciplinary question. I see your project being in conversation with a larger field of scholarship, particularly standing at the intersections of Afro-pessimism and Afrofuturism. There’s a tension between the two based on questioning the limitations and possibilities of the (capital H) human or humanism. What is the human in this text? Can humanism be disentangled from its fraught history, or do Black people participate in something altogether inarticulable?

HI: Can I ask a clarifying question, Courtney, about where you ended right there with regard to Afro-pessimism. Is there a way that the question of what it means to be human in that particular project is given a kind of language or structure?

CM: I’m thinking of texts and theories from those like Frank Wilderson and others who delve deeper into Orlando Patterson’s theory of social death. Through that framework, it seems as if being a part of any kind of humanism or humanity for Black people is impossible because it’s always inaccessible. However, your book is proposing that there’s still hope for an alternative humanity or alternative Black humanism.

HI: Yes, thank you. Thank you for that clarification. And thank you for the question. I'm looking at art. There's something about Black art that always already evidences life. You can’t think deeply about Black cultural production and not be confronted with what it means to be alive under varying conditions. So this is part of how I have to work, methodologically speaking. But the reason why the social category we call Black exists is also what enables us to think about existence differently. Because I'm thinking in terms of constant struggle–between versions of abuse along with versions of reinvention and reclamation–I focus on how that particular process of struggle produces something. And that production is seen in the art, it's seen in the way we talk to each other, it's seen in the ideas that we have, it's seen in the way we imagine alternative ways of endowing our lives with meaning. And so it's because of that process, which I think of as ongoing and constantly generative, that I can imagine the question of existence differently. Frantz Fanon was looking for a new humanism; how you get to it in Black Skin, White Masks is an arduous process, and the outcome is uncertain. But nonetheless, it's what you generate in the course of the process that we can look to for where Black life exists. If you imagine that to think of humanity as being defined by the capacity to act autonomously and to claim property—through the tenets of liberal humanism in a sort of political vein—you could also ask the question, what's human about that? Is that, in fact, human? The process of contestation turns the question around. What exactly is human about the liberal humanist version of humanity? There's something about it that's profoundly inhuman. So I wanted to create a new language, a new vocabulary, for delving into that space where we invent, and we regenerate, and we continually imagine other ways to be.

CM: In your introduction, you state that age is an analytic that helps people envision new strategies of protection. Can age reach beyond modes of protection to think more in-depth about survival, resistance, and liberation?

HI: Yes, that's a good question. Yes, I would like to be able to think deeply about liberation. But I would also like us to be thinking about what our underlying investments look like. So again, I'm trying to denaturalize what has become just a part of the way we think of the natural course of existence and social life. There's a way of thinking about being at the vanguard of new ways of knowing and being which might emerge in activist circles and elsewhere. There's a way we may not necessarily think of development as the first term that comes to mind when we think about hierarchies of organizational work. But hierarchies are tied to the way that we think about development generally. So the question is: who gets to emerge as the adult with adult authority? I'm using adult here not to signify the normative way we think of adulthood as a life stage that begins at a particular age. I'm thinking about it as synonymous with the supremacy of humanity. And so in that sense, in our work with each other, are we thinking of each other in relational or hierarchical terms? And what do those schemas allow us to think and do? I want to think about the way that age is embedded in the very way we think about power. In the very way we think about who gets to speak for whom, who gets to set the agenda, who gets to set the table, who gets to sit at the table. We saw it in the star system of the 1980s, with regard to who gets to be the Black thinker that speaks for all of Black Studies. Who gets to be the one who can have the conversations with the other real theorists for the sake of the masses–the Black students and other Black scholars who are not quite as able and who don't quite have the professional and intellectual capacity to speak to the nation in the name of Black Studies. I want to think about what exactly the structural arrangements are, on local and micro scales, for being in relation to each other.

Habiba Ibrahim is Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is the author of Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism and Black Age: Oceanic Lifespans and the Time of Black Life, which received the 2022 honorable mention for the Harry Shaw and Katrina Hazzard-Donald Award for Outstanding Work in African-American Popular Culture Studies by the Popular Culture Association. Ibrahim co-edited the South Atlantic Quarterly special issue, “Black Temporality in Times of Crisis,” and her work appears in African American Review, American Literary History, Anthropology and Humanism, and Keywords for African American Studies. Her work provides an account of modern Black life through examinations of social and literary forms of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.