Fugitivity: Freedom as a Practice of “Quotidian Refusal”

¡buenas dias familia!

My life has been a hot mess for the last few months, the cards fell in such a way that my sister’s wedding happened to coincide with an already busy conference season, and I am just now getting the chance to rest and to metabolize all this learning.

I feel like I should attach a disclaimer here: much of my experiences in the last several weeks have been in these rarefied academic spaces (where people use words like “rarefied”), and I feel like it may seem a little out-of-touch with reality in the way that only highly academic things can. My apologies if I lose you, but I promise that there is some real value here for the day-to-day fight for justice. P’alante, right?

As I reflected on the past few weeks, I kept coming back to an idea that I picked up at a symposium at AERA. These four brilliant indigenous women presented papers on Decolonizing College Access, which included these amazing stories about taking students on “Indigenous Lands Walks,” where instead of a “college tour,” prospective students visit sites of significance to the original inhabitants of the land that their shiny state university buildings currently stand on. A Diné (aka “Navajo”) woman shared connections between blanket weaving and analyzing student stories of feeling out of place in their colleges.

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All of the papers presented pointed out in different ways how the way we talk about “college choice” is so problematic, and yet we can’t help but desire deeply for our historically marginalized students to access and leverage college experiences. They were wrestling (and so was I) with this seemingly unresolvable tension around naming the white supremacist and settler colonial foundations of schooling and “access,” but still wanting our students to access and to thrive in a system that we know is inflicting trauma on the regs.

The four women had chosen as their discussant Dr. David Omotoso Stovall, a professor of Education Policy Studies and African-American Studies from UIC. I perked up and leaned in to hear what he had to say as soon as I could make out what was on his t-shirt:

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Dr. Stovall began his remarks by pointing to a concept common in Black Feminist analyses, but which no one I have shared it with since last Saturday had heard of: fugitivity, and fugitive praxis.

Even as I tried to do my homework for this article, I had some trouble locating and accessing the papers where this term originate (the academic industrial complex, including closed-access journals and expensive textbooks, is another one of those white-supremacist-settler-colonialist-foundation-of-education things…).

One talk in particular helped me quite a bit, where Dr. Tina Campt identifies the ‘frequency’ of her found photos as “fugitivity…the quotidian practice of refusal.” Dr. Campt cites Dr. Fred Moten’s influential work, which calls fugitivity “the refusal to be refused,” or “a refusal to be subject to a law that refuses to recognize you…defined not by opposition or necessarily resistance, but instead a refusal of the very premises that have historically negated the very lived experience of blackness as either pathological or exceptional to the logic of white supremacy.”

In other words, fugitivity is refusing to comply with a system that assumes you are either deserving of inevitable subordination because of your very nature (pathologized), or else you are some intriguing exception to that inevitable logic of subordination. (I’m not sure at this point whether my ‘other words’ are helpful or not, but there they are…)

Campt also cites Judith Butler, who points out the way that being told to stay in one’s “proper place,” is the same as being denied simply “taking place.” That is, being forbidden from simply “being:”

“I am wondering whether “the human” would be characterized by you as a being who can take place (assume a place, and also, in some sense, “happen”), and whether this mode of happening emerges when–or through those acts by which–a collectivity refuses to stay in a proper place. It seems that for the human to emerge in your terms, the proper must be displaced.”

-Judith Butler, from “Dispossession: The Performative in the Political”

Dr. Campt equates fugitivity with freedom itself: the possibility of living an unbounded life (a possibility which is our very birthright, but is denied to us by the racism, capitalism, and militarism that forms the core of white supremacy).

This freedom is not simply a one time act of flight (“fugit” is the Latin word for “flew,” or “flown,” and the metaphor of a bird in flight seems like a wonderful stand in for “freedom” to me).

Freedom is a practice.

This is why Dr. Campt calls fugitivity “quotidian” refusal–that is, ‘every-day’ refusal. Freedom for people who have a “proper place” that encloses them in subordination is a daily practice of flight from such an enclosure, a running as fast as one can from the chains of that “proper” place.

Even this article so far is living in a kind of fugitive tension. Another session at AERA that left an impression was one with a title I _had to_ learn more about: Troubling Hollow Commitments to “Diversity”: Denouncing Whiteness as a Design Feature in Teacher Education Programs. The session papers and decks were all dope, but again the discussant’s comments are what really left an impression. This time it was none other than celebrity scholar Chris Emdin, who pointed out the ways that the very language and posturing of academic environments alienates the students we claim we are trying to serve. The very structure of the conversation encloses people in a periphery of exclusion.

In this video Dr. Emdin explains the condition of cultural agnosia: that is, the way that academics can recognize brilliance only when it uses big words (like “agnosia”), but it can’t recognize brilliance when it doesn’t look or act (perform) like an academic.

He proposes “ratchetdemic” as the solution: to exemplify the characteristics of urban spaces (“ratchet”) while also pursuing new knowledges (“academic”). If we make children choose between their own taking place (however “ratchet”) and occupying a proper place (“academia”) then we should not be surprised when they refuse the proper place in order to just be themselves.

One solution is to adapt those proper places so that they no longer enclose children in this false binary. We can make accommodations for their authentic expressions, their taking place, in our “proper” learning environments. We can have spaces that are more “responsive” to the culture that our children legitimately inhabit and bring into our classrooms.

Another solution is to join our students in their refusal, to take place with them and embrace their taking place, and to find ways to import the knowledges and skillsets of the academy into these fugitive spaces, to build new schools and systems that are “relevant” to the fugitive futures of our people.

Why not both?

In either approach, the eventual hope is that the “proper” will collapse altogether, even as we now see white supremacy consuming itself as it chokes violently on its own ashes and smog. Our hope is, as it has ever been, survival: outliving the system that attempts to enclose us, and fugitivity is a key strategy for that survival.

I’ve come all this way without pointing out the most obvious tie-in for the idea of fugitivity: the one that may have been triggered for you if you are a passionate and critical student of American history.

Feeling horrified by the escalating slave revolt in Haiti, Thomas Jefferson (as Secretary of State under Washington) used his trademark eloquence and influence to push through the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The act was later bolstered by racist slaver secessionists in the 1850’s, and is itself the origins of many of our troubles with modern policing and the assumption of criminality that haunts people of color throughout the US.

The enclosures of today are hardly different from the enclosures of yesterday, whether they be those police called in by Starbucks, or the decorated walls and “proper” rules of our classrooms–we must recognize and refuse them for our own freedom and the freedom of our children.

I’ll leave you with two quotes from that great liberator, Harriett Tubman. The first expresses the dark reality of living as fugitive, feeling always the threat of (re)enclosure, but striving always toward the goal:

“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”
—Harriet Tubman

If you are going through hell, then keep going.

Know also that you do not go alone, but that your ancestors and descendants are with you always, and so are we. And finally:


“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
—Harriet Tubman

Keep dreaming my friends, and stay always in flight.


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