Let’s Meet at the Crossroads
Commencement Keynote Address to Pacifica Graduate Institute, Class of 2021
by Dr. Bayo Akomolafe
May 29, 2021
Thank you for this privileged invitation to speak at a time of many silences. I am grateful to be “here” – whatever “here” means these days. Where I come from, nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Wakanda – a little black nation called Nigeria, we love the ritual of greeting: so, I want to acknowledge the village – the beautiful community of learning and unlearning that is Pacifica, and its many people and elders – many of whom work humbly behind the scenes to create (over and over again) the conditions that make it possible for you to do the things you do. I acknowledge Dr. Thyonne Gordon (chair of the board of trustees), Dr. Steve Aizenstat, the chancellor emeritus and founding president of Pacifica (whose superhero appellation would be ‘Sandman’), the President, Dr. Joseph Cambray (whom I have known these 50 years – if you took African time seriously), Peter Rojcewicz, the Provost and VP of Academic Affairs, and all the staff and faculty of this institute.
I have enjoyed myself teaching with my colleagues in the Community, Liberation, Indigenous, and Eco-psychologies wing of Depth Psychology – and celebrate Professor Susan James (who first reached out to me a couple of years ago), and Professor Mary Watkins, whose kindness and warm hospitality still lingers. Most of all, I reserve my blessings and most excited greetings for the Classes of 2020 and 2021, your families, your ancestry! You’ve all worked so hard to be here. Congratulations on reaching this place of celebration and prophecy.
I’ve only been to the sprawling campus of Pacifica once – and if my memory doesn’t embarrass me, I remember gleaming phallic towers of glass and steel stretching into the sky and extensive networks of asphalted highways surveilled by flying military-style drones. I kid! It felt like home. I love film and stories – and the grounds at Pacifica felt like sanctuary, like a subterranean embassy for the otherwise in a time of crippling normality.
But this is surreal stuff – all of this, me speaking here and now: when I got the invitation to speak, I tried to think of all the things that came together to make it happen, everything and everyone I am indebted to. I am a Nigerian kid; I am of the Yoruba people – son of Ignatius Abayomi Akomolafe and Olufunmilayo Ibidapo Akomolafe. My mother celebrated her 70th birthday last November. My father, he was tall and noble – and one of my best friends. He died in my youth…when I was fifteen. He wasn’t there the three times I earned degrees and graduated; when I got married to Ije, the most beautiful woman I had ever met; when our first child, our daughter Alethea, shrieked into the world with the joy of neonatal inquiry. I know he would have been proud. I think he’s proud now.
At a defining moment in our lives as lecturers in a university in Nigeria, my wife and I decided to leave our professions behind – to seek out a smaller life, to deepen our intimacy, to treat our children as if they were prophets not mere receptacles for things we already knew. Describing myself as a recovering psychologist, I wrote a book, travelled the world speaking, and started an organization devoted to what I called “postactivism.” At some point during my development, I did have desires to one day speak to a graduating class – it is what nerds think about to compensate for their lack of poise in social contexts. I imagined I would speak in front an audience – as has become my vocation for a decade now. But even though I have given a thousand speeches, a commencement address (especially one given to a North American virtual audience) is a different beast, I reckoned: so, asking myself questions like – should I type up a speech or speak “from the heart” – I looked up a few other addresses: from Jim Carrey’s comedically extravagant sermon on fear and the future to Steve Jobs’ penetrating inquiry into the nuances of motivation and becoming creative.
But those instances were during “normal” times; and there’s nothing normal about where we are: these are not normal times.
I speak to you from India, my wife’s country, where I live with my family. It’s night, in more ways than one. There’s death around, pain and suffering. I myself am still struggling with COVID, along with the rest of my family. I am at home with our children under strict lockdown measures imposed by the Chennai government, as a new COVID-19 mutant iteration of global concern prowls the streets. Elsewhere in the world, an iceberg the size of the American state of Rhode Island breaks off an ice shelf in Antarctica; a tense ceasefire stretches on after a protracted spell of asymmetrical warfare between Israel and Palestine; in Morocco, hundreds of families try to steal into the European exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla; the US congress discusses Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, potentially unravelling the discourse on what it means to be human in an interplanetary age; and the Anthropocene – these moments of loss and instability – spins madly on. I heard someone say recently that 2019 was the last normal year. I understand that, but I don’t think so: the normal is always subsidized by the occluded invisible, centralized by displacement. We are living in the times of George Floyd, yes, but we’ve for long lived in a world where the slave ship is possible. And even as I congratulate citizens of the US for the drop in COVID cases, the relaxation of emergency public health protocols, and the growing number of vaccinations recorded, I cannot trust that ‘health’ is an individuated property that can be domiciled in single, isolatable bodies.
It’s all awkward. There’s a theme of awkwardness that runs through these days of Zoom: children appearing on-screen interrupting business-as-usual, the eternal undecidability in the question of whether a speaker is wearing clothes beneath the screen. These are days of failure, of loss, of confusion. Even right now, I am mostly reading a text – because I couldn’t depend too much on my exhausted powers not to traipse off into something else. It feels like the end of the world – which brings us to these questions and considerations:
What does it mean to graduate at the end of the world, during a pandemic? What are these gatherings for? What does a ritual celebrating the attainment of mastery signify – if anything – at a time when mastery is troubled by the breakdown in the world? When what it means to be human is no longer clear?
I want to tell you a story, here at yet another end of worlds. It might help us make sense of these questions – but even more, and hopefully, it might open space for us to travel to places we don’t know yet. My story is a story about resistance, freedom, losing hope, and the queer art of failure. It’s about what happens when things don’t work out the way you expected them to, when visibility is low, when you are told to look down and hunker down. So, my story is about blackness.
You might have already guessed where this is going: I am not here to tell you that you are going to make it, that all you need is hope and grit, that the world is coherent and readable. I am not here to pray for your success. You went through Pacifica; I’m sure you can take this. Yes, I am here to speak about fissures, fault lines, rifts, splinters, wounds, and all the many cousins of cracks.
I speak to you about the world “kicking back,” about things straying away from their algorithms, about an insurgency of invisible critters, about the loss of stability, about disability. For those of you who like movies, the films – A Quiet Place and Bird Box, released the same year 2018 – tell stories about what happens when something strange and foreign crashes through the veneer of the familiar, disarticulating bodies in the shock of their traversal penetration, turning on its head what it means to be capable and what it means to be disabled. They are filmic explorations of cripistemologies – the term that designates the study of how able bodies are produced and how other bodies are simultaneously rendered disabled as a result. In A Quiet Place, elocution and voice suddenly become a handicap. If you speak, you die. And in Bird Box, perhaps more critically, sight – that most principal of our senses – becomes a handicap. To see is to break. I wonder then: what if in today’s world of pandemics and climate chaos, succeeding is a handicap? What if to be whole, to have a clean bill of health, probably written with the gilded ink of a recent vaccination, is to ironically feed a hungry beast whose nourishment depends upon our claims to independence? If human centredness has contributed to practices of dismissal and abuse, then isn’t a healthy human, unbothered and enclosed, an ecological burden (Professor Cambray either made a grave mistake inviting me – or there might yet be a surprising abundance when we stay with these troubling considerations!)?
But let’s stay with this textured inquiry: what to do at the end of the world? How to be response-able to these times of dramatic shifts and troubling encounters at the edges of our flesh?
Well, first, the world has ended many times. I am not speaking about extinction level events, and spectacular arrivals from the skies. I am speaking about all the ways something unexpected slips through and breaks the familiar so thoroughly, like an accusation in Salem, that forward movement becomes impossible. Critically the world has ended many times to make room for whiteness – the world-performing imperative that enlists bodies of all kinds to perpetuate secure arrivals and safety. Even more critically, there isn’t one world – one dominant already-made world. The world has never been coherent or okay for many of us. And endings are plentiful – often happening at the edges of our tongue.
Let me tell you how my world certainly ended. I even know the date. June 30, at 4pm Indian time. Proverbially, like Icarus of old, I was soaring in the sky, returning home from a hasty trip to the Netherlands where I had been invited to speak. My flight home was punctuated by the good but anxious news that my wife was in the hospital – many days before term – about to give birth to our second child, even though I had pressed my lips on her belly before leaving home, asking the young’un to wait till I was back.
His arrival signalled a cut in the fabric of things so severe that we are still processing these memories to this day. First, we had always wanted another girl, two girls, that was the plan. A little sister for Alethea. But the world kicks back hard – and Kyah, our beautiful son, was born to us. My mother gave him the name Abayomi, after my late father. We loved him to bits – as we do today. We would do anything for him. But then one day, when he was almost two, we started to notice strange things…it began with silence: when we called out his name, he didn’t answer – and he wasn’t nearly as vocally gifted as his sister when she was his age. We told ourselves it didn’t matter, that children grow differently. My mother assured us that boys often speak later than girls. But when he started to reject food and would throw tantrums so loud that an airport terminal would freeze to figure out what was going on, we knew our worst fears had happened. Almost unavoidably, a diagnosis came: Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
The thing is, we didn’t see Kyah coming. I didn’t see him coming. He came out left field, from outside the blueprint, like the errant finger of a young human child into the path of diligently working ants.
In more ways than I can even understand, I was ushered into a time of grieving. To be honest, at some level, I still struggle with “why me” questions. My grief wanted to fix him, to mend him. To make him whole. My son Abayomi was a crack in the container of my most powerful aspirations. How was I going to play with him, grow with him, if he was only partly there?
I styled myself his hero. I was going to rush into the wind and drag him out of the storm. What I failed to account for was how I was already (beyond my best intentions or worst impulses) implicated in producing him as inadequate, the algorithms that led me to reduce things that were wrong to what was happening in his three-year-old body. I wanted to capture him in the promise of complete and total health, to vaccinate him from the injuries of the world – much like Freyja attempted to freeze the universe so that her son, Baldur, would not die. And like Baldur, who would fall to Loki’s mistletoe, my son Abayomi would not be fully named, fully captured. He slunk away, spilling from my grip, resisting attempts to fit in, to be complete. Like a fugitive.
There is a tale coming from the days of the transatlantic slave trade – a tale of a woman who was stolen at night. With her child. Aboard the ship headed for Brazil, the poor child could not contain his misery. He flailed and wept and stretched. There was no solace aboard that floating vessel. But then this mother was inspired: legend has it that she took her clothes and tore out a piece of it with her bare hands. From the shreds, she braided a ragdoll and offered it to her child as a plaything. A plaything in the belly of a slave ship. Like a song in Auschwitz. And for a moment, that child was consoled. The grateful mother, from the Yoruba people, named the ragdoll Abayomi – the name that is my father’s and my son’s. The name means the enemy would have overwhelmed me, but God did not allow it. It also means they thought they buried me but did not realize that I am a seed. It also means, if you kneel on my neck, you too will break. It also means, there is strange power in depths and in discarded places. It means that the colonial enterprise is undone by the very fact that nothing is entirely capturable – everything spills, moves. Everything is ecstatic, beside-itself, mad with emergence.
The elders from my world might agree that the ragdoll was no mere assemblage of cloth and tears. It was Esu himself, the Òrìsà and superhuman deity that stole into the masters’ registers and upset its claims to integrity, becoming the missed spot, the unaccounted-for body aboard that rational vessel of quantitative supremacy. Esu is the Yoruba trickster god of the crossroads – the man that holds agency, that disciplines our claims to completeness with homeopathic doses of monstrosity, that breaks the binaries with which we see the world and opens up a third way. Such is Esu’s gift. The gift of the crossroads. That ragdoll took a sailing vessel of misery and transformed it into a wooden womb, pregnant with a god and a people who would later infuse the diasporic world with a magic liveliness. That ragdoll has become a symbol of queer resistance in favelas in parts of Brazil. Abayomi is a reminder that power isn’t might, and that the work of responding to colonial times isn’t necessarily to win, to be seen, to be acknowledged by the state – as it is to learn how to listen, to learn how to get lost.
Abayomi is my father that lingers; Abayomi is my son who will not be contained. Abayomi is the exceeding excessiveness of things that means even the prison cell and all sorts of master’s tools will not always abide faithful to their programming. Abayomi is the glitching off-the-record-ness of things. Abayomi is blackness – and the heart of my pixelated invitation to you, Classes of 2020 and 2021, here beneath strange skies.
Make no mistake. Just like autism is not exclusively about neurological events in my son’s head, but about the ways we produce and name bodies and the worlds that sustain them…to the exclusion of different ways of being embodied, Blackness is not about black people (any more than whiteness is about white people), even though it arises from a studious consideration of their contexts, experiences, and journeys. Blackness is a cripistemology that considers the Man, the Anthropos – and what it does, what it produces, what it excludes; blackness is the quest for new disabilities, new corporeal fidelities. It is about the machinic world that names specific kinds of bodies as special – and other bodies as discardable appendages, closer to the animal, never quite touching the glory and nobility of white-identified bodies: a nobility that is heavily subsidized by censorious denial of the vitality of the material world. Blackness is not about getting our own, getting even, getting equal, getting paid. Not the prescriptive adversariality in the vehicle of white progress. It is about the ways bodies become stuck in the worlds they create, in the worlds that create them – and the openings, the cracks, that often emerge, almost miraculously – the portals through which a different way can be sensed with an animal keenness.
Blackness is the strange quality of abundance that sprouts in the most improbable of places. A youthful green stalk in the desert, a mushroom growing out of an abandoned radioactive tank in Chernobyl, a ragdoll on a slave ship, queer life in the middle of a pandemic-inflected Anthropocene. Blackness is death – not the terminal deletion of western imagination, but the dying that cradles life, that says where we stumble is a treasure, where we fail and lose hope are spiderwebs upon which drunken gods slide from the divine to the oceans to make new worlds from their calabashes of sand.
This is why Frank B. Wilderson III, in his book Afropessimism, states that blackness calls for nothing less than the end of the world. Is there hope for peace in the Middle East? Can this exhausted contraption of nation-states ever account for violence done to the so-called Global South? Will a billion euros cheque from Germany to Namibia for the genocide of the Herero and Nama people from 1904 to 1907 touch the bones of those killed? Will the dyadic arrangement of the clinical therapeutic alliance be enough to help us come sensuously alive to the world that is the condition of our days? Is there room for white-identified bodies to know the joys of a wild animist world beyond the Faustian capture of the nation-state? There is no hope to be had within the present arrangement of bodies, no peace to squeeze out of the pulp of colonial capture. No justice could be enough that is already programmatically connected to the circumstances that produce injustice.
We need a break.
Blackness is the matrixial upset, the break…not a single answer, but a cartographical project of losing our way…the invitation to become lost, the dignity of failure, the imperative of the compost heap.
Put simply, blackness is the permission to fail – but not just that, the promise of newness in fugitive failure. And I could think of no greater thing to share with you than this invitation to fail. I call this failure generative incapacitation – my unschooled children, 7 and 3, call it whatever they want.
The point is we cannot risk being successful; we cannot risk doing everything we set out to do. I mean, it is beautiful to achieve what we set out to do, to see things happen, to dream good dreams, to do something with our time. The success I speak of is not so much the text as it is the book, the ways we are caught up in patterns of behaving that prohibit and are insensitive to the imperatives of loss, of dying well, of losing ground, of becoming-other, of being disturbed, of being met and defeated by things that exceed us. We cannot risk smooth sailing from here. We cannot risk arriving; we can’t risk being saved if transformation is our longing. To be saved is to restore the recognizable, and reinscribe the formula of the same: this is the very grammar of unbothered closure that is implicated in the heating up of our oceans, in the pandemics, and even in the cyclical repeatability of contemporary justice-seeking activisms and liberal politics, when it uses the same tools of stuckness to create an ethical totality that yields to nothing other than its sense of righteousness. You see, we must leave some room for goddesses and ragdolls.
This is what it means to meet at the crossroads. It is to live as if we live with and through others – because we in fact do. It is to notice that every straight line is haunted by intersecting liminal trajectories, and that continuity is indebted to those places where bodies bump into other bodies. It is to heed the voice of Harriet Tubman, to get off the highway and wade in the waters, to treat with some hospitality the things that cross us. The end of the world is not the end of the road – such a framing is too Euclidean to be adequate to our times. Instead, the end of the world is the spirit of the chiasmus, the place our bodies meet their makers. Failure is the munificence of these troubling encounters.
And now the contractual moralistic bulleted list that in my survey of impactful commencement addresses was adopted by their speakers; don’t worry – I give you permission to dismiss everything I say in its entirety if need be:
This is the time of the fugitive, the decade of descent.
If your mastery must be become response-able to these charged times, let it be mastery with a lisp, the kind of mastery that slows down and listens – the kind that makes you animal enough to be sensuously keen and alive to possibilities the surface knows nothing about.
Things won’t always go our way, and that’s not such a bad thing. In fact, it is why we Africans offer libations. Not just to remember the joys of ancestrally gained stability, but to honour the gift of crisis, and – in the selfsame moment when the drink hits the earth and whips up dust, as if to unsettle the very grounds we stand on – to prophesy at the feet of the yet-to-come unthought and unimagined. We pray to hasten demise in order that we might live. A prayer of contradictions.
Today, scientists tell us about zombie bacteria and queer biospheres and their civilizations within the ground, which we once imagined to be still and useful only for cradling dead things. We are in the age of the hyposubject, the beneath-subject; the age of subscendence, not transcendence. A electrifying invitation fills the air: it is time to go down, to explore our failings and their myriad intrasections as porous places, to experiment with approaching the more-than-human.
If you have been a good white ally, I celebrate you. But even though I need you, I cannot stay here. And that’s probably true for you too. I cannot risk being included in these sites of power. Occupying the upper deck on the slave ship still leaves me here, still leaves us here – on this vessel. So, I do not want a seat at the table, I want to fly – like the Igbo men and women flew from Dunbar Creek. Maybe in my flight, you might notice that in the larger flow of things, it might matter little if you’ve been a good citizen or not. Maybe in my flight, you might find your that you too are sensuously becoming something else. You too are not still and have never arrived.
Don’t be so tethered to your quests for the extraordinary. Indeed, these days we must seek the fiercely ordinary – because the ordinary is what the extraordinary desires to become. To notice the sacred, to sense the playful indeterminacy of things, one must be sufficiently pierced. It is only with the wounds granted to us by these shifts at large that we become stranger.
Our work is intergenerational. Our failures must be let into the room. We won’t be finally woke, or finally just. We must allow that our lives are not durationally competent enough to hold all the questions we could possibly explore, for lives and deaths are not matters of duration alone. And this is why death needs a new cosmology.
And finally, find the others. I don’t know who they are, what they are. But the openings in our flesh crackle with the frequencies of their desire to meet with you downstream. Find the others. Here’s a map: listen to your failures, don’t cover the cracks up, go deep in there. Whatever you do, don’t try to make the world a better place; instead, consider that the world might be trying to make you a better place. Listen.
I must end with the question I began with: what if justice gets in the way of transformation? What if the world has changed so radically that we must learn to meet it differently? What if my son isn’t in the storm, what if my son is the storm? What if my fatherhood is not about disciplining him to walk the straight and narrow? What if it could be about the engorged possibilities, monstrously abundant, that are available in the things we often learn to pathologize? What if my so-called sanity has always been my prison, and that this messianic wound urges me to something different? Something incalculably stranger than anything we can come up with?
In these times, as the highway bleeds, and as fugitive crossroads sprout from the places of rupture, may you fail generously to know worlds many may never know. May you come alive so richly that we would need to invent new words to describe the grace and gravity of your dancing in the village square. May your road be rough, and may the disturbance be your sanctuary.
Class of 2020 and 2021, let us meet at the crossroads.