Introduction: Life/Is Good
by Katherine McKittrick, Queen’s University
“…it is very hard work” – Robin D.G. Kelly (2009: 451) on Thelonius Monk
When Clyde Woods and I were writing the introduction to Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (McKittrick and Woods 2007) Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, which occurred just as we prepared the text for publication, shaped our geographic perspectives. Black death and black dispossession were unsurprisingly normalized, while attempts to ‘save’ and ‘remedy’ black poverty were shaped by ‘humanitarian’ acts that, in fact, centralize what Sylvia Wynter (2003) describes as the over-representation of homo oeconomicus as though it were the only mode of being human. With a longstanding history of anti-black violence contexualizing Katrina, my portion of the introductory remarks were bleakly drafted and Clyde – while not disagreeable to my thinking – interwove a series of statements throughout that reoriented our discussion. While eyeing and drawing attention to the underside, Clyde also brought into focus geographic acts that preserve sacred spaces, reimagine the stakes of emancipation, and rewrite narratives of social justice. Keenly aware of my preoccupation with the history of racial violence and alternative black ontologies, Clyde gave me a different future – one that does not abandon my preoccupations but rather situates and interweaves this research alongside a blues epistemology and blues life – “which will never die out…” (Bob Meyers, quoted in Woods 1998: 287).
The essays collected here briefly honour the writings and insights of Clyde Woods. Each piece touches on different aspects of his career, mentorship, friendship, and intellectual contributions, but all emphasize his amazingly complex knowledge of black life, creativity, and economic struggle. As I read the essays included here, I was reminded of the web of meanings Clyde offered us, specifically the deep-deep-depth of his research and the ways in which his work provided a set of ideas that unraveled into divergent and overlapping themes that the essayists here, along with his other friends and colleagues, have become differently attached to. His work on the blues and hip-hop and black musics, the political economy of the plantation and post-slave life, the geographies of Katrina and Haiti and Baltimore and Los Angeles, as well as his work as an activist, teacher, and mentor, are knotted together and distinct tenors. There is, though, an anchor to these different attachments, knots, and tenors, for in his research and conversations, Clyde offered an unforgettable challenge and provocation: that the work we do, the questions we ask, must be bound up in the ongoing struggle to live the world differently. This challenge, as we continue to witness the premature deaths of the most marginalized – from Trayvon Martin to the nameless droned – is urgent. Clyde’s insights and activism, as the essays here attest, do not rest on facile recuperation but rather are defined through a comprehensive political contextualization of longstanding black struggles that provide us with a alternative epistemological politic and, as noted above, a different future.
In Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta, Clyde Woods (1998: 214) writes:
“The blues remains a revitalizing element that continues to preserve, discuss, and reinterpret the hard-learned lessons of the past while maintaining an unblinking gaze upon the present and the future…”.
At this moment in the text, Woods is outlining the complexities of black expressive cultures. In drawing attention to the ways in which critics have overwhelmingly misinterpreted black musicians and their musics, Woods underscores one of the central ideas advanced in Development Arrested: that the blues uncovers black political activism and geographic struggles and that the practice of making music, along with the lyrical content of these musics, contextualizes plantation production as “one of the most monumental burdens ever placed upon any community” (1998: 271). It is the convergence of race, political economy, location, and creative expression that leads to what many consider to be Woods’ most meaningful work on transformative politics. For it is in Development Arrested that Woods unpacks the monumental burden of the plantation to reveal it not as a space of ongoing racial pain, but rather a location through which black workers and musicians “constructed their vision of a non-oppressive society” and envisioned “a new society being born” (1998: 39).
The conceptual anchors of Clyde Woods’ research, what he describes as “blues epistemology” and “blues ontology”, are activist-minded and theoretically rich. To posit that the practice of making blues – and therefore black specific musics that extend outward to foster multi-ethnic encounters – is an indigenous, interactive, visionary act that provides activist strategies for overcoming the tragedy of daily life, is urgent and meaningful (see Woods 1998: 108). With this is Woods’ contention that the blues is, alongside activism, “philosophical arsenal” (1998: 116). Both the activist and metaphysical work of the blues not only counters anti-black racism, but also interrupts the broader conceptions of what it means to be human. Taking this music-work seriously – as Woods does – therefore undoes the figure and figuring of liberal democracy and reveals the incomplete project of freedom while giving blackness a different future.
It is the simultaneity of creative, activist, and intellectual work that draws attention to Woods’ radical vision: here, he provocatively offers the blues as an organic interdisciplinary expression of “participatory democracy” that is knotted to hard work. This vision continually refuses to predictably posit the blues as a descriptor of hopeful black melancholy, broken dreams, and primitive musicianship that “comes naturally” (1998: 288-289). Pulling the blues out of a closed-descriptive-statement that devalues blackness as it rewards it for being naturally downtrodden, Woods offers a creative-metaphysics that brings with it a different sense of time and space, and therefore a politics that honours “epistemological innovations” wherein black peoples are not cast as an “endangered species” (Woods 2007: 76, 2002: 62). Within the context of global anti-black urbicide and genocide – iconized by Haiti, the 9th ward, the ongoing desertification of African regions, and more – this radical vision must be urgently shared and fostered, for the future that Woods offers us demands that we embrace the politics of co-operation as it is creatively articulated by those who have been dispossessed. This is a co-operation of participatory action, intellectual transformation, and critical pedagogy – this is hard work that trusts the innovative alternatives underlying a “new humanism” (Fanon 2008: xi).
*“The sun never set upon the blues” – from Woods (1998: 287).
“Hardly home, but always reppin'”: Remembering Black Human Worth, Remembering Doctor Clyde A. Woods by Mark V. Campbell, University of Guelph
In Memory of Clyde Woods: Racing Neoliberalism and its Long Durée by Sue Ruddick, University of Toronto
Clyde Woods: Life After Black Social Death by João Costa Vargas, University of Texas at Austin
Clyde Woods: From Blues to Hip Hop by Bobby M. Wilson, University of Alabama
Bearing Witness: Mahalia Jackson and the Sanctified Bounce (for Clyde Woods) by Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University
Remembering Clyde Woods—Geographer-Planner by Edward W. Soja, UCLA
Fanon F (2008 ) Black Skin, White Masks (trans. R Philcox). New York: Grove Press
Kelly R D G (2009) Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. New York: Free Press
McKittrick K and Woods C (eds) (2007) Black Geographies and the Politics of Place. Toronto: Between the Lines Press
Woods C (1998) Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. New York: Verso
Woods C (2002) Life after death. The Professional Geographer 54(1):62-66
Woods C (2007) “Sittin’ on top of the world”: The challenges of blues and hip hop geography. In McKittrick K and Woods C (eds) Black Geographies and the Politics of Place. Toronto: Between the Lines Press
Wynter S (2003) Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its over-representation – an argument. CR: The New Centennial Review 3(3):257-337