REFLECTIONS | WINTER ’22
Refuse What Has Been Refused To You
WORDS by NKGOPOLENG MOLOI
ILLUSTRATIONS by DONOVAN EDWARDS
Refuse the Given.
Live on What You Need and No More.
Get Ready to Be Free.
I think about insurrection and anarchy every day. It is difficult not to when you live in a world such as this one, where power continues to forcefully stake its claim—whether it is endemic gender-based violence in South Africa, anti-Black violence in the US, Covid’s impact on the poor, US forces in (and out) of Afghanistan, billionaires colonizing space, or billionaires existing. Undergirding each crisis is a well-established system of domination and accumulation that calls for resistance and refusal.
As I meditate on enduring systems of control and the ways in which we might be able to dismantle them, or at least subvert them, I return to a phrase that was offered to me a few months ago; refuse what has been refused to you. At the time, I did not fully comprehend what these words meant, at least cognitively, but I felt them to be true. Deep in my belly, I felt a resonance that drew me towards this new modality in the quest to live free of oppressive structures. My crudely oversimplified model of refusal is enumerated.
- Refusal in time (refusing today what was denied to you yesterday).
- Double refusal (refusing the refusal).
- Overt refusal (claiming for yourself whatever the world has decided to deny you).
Each of these feels useful in different contexts when considering how best to respond to power.
In her seminal text, The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner, writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman introduces us to Esther Brown, a wayward coloured girl with no social constraints. Esther Brown—ungovernable, riotous, an embodiment of anarchy—refused what she was given and got ready to be free. Hartman writes;
“Esther Brown never pulled a soapbox onto the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue to make a speech about autonomy, the global reach of the color line, involuntary servitude, free motherhood, or the promise of a future world, but she well understood that the desire to move as she wanted was nothing short of treason. She knew firsthand that the offense most punished by the state was trying to live free.” 1
Even as she understood the dangers of reaching towards freedom, Esther continued to live on her own terms. She owned nothing, refused what was given, lived only on what she needed, and got ready to be free.
“Own Nothing. Refuse the Given. Live on What You Need and No More. Get Ready to Be Free.”
These four lines might be considered a manifesto of the wayward, had Esther Brown bothered to write it, had she cared enough about rebellion or politics or manifestos. But she didn’t.
Instead of a manifesto or a political speech about the global reach of the colour line, we are left with Esther’s refusal, through which (and in which) we can imagine what might have been said. We are left with notes read through anarchy, that is to say, how to live life on one’s terms regardless of the consequences. More specifically, the lessons are;
- that anarchy—read as a refusal to recognise authority—can in fact be asserted as gesture and non-gesture.
- that anarchy—read as a refusal to recognise authority—can occur in a riotous manner as method.
1 Saidiya Hartman. The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner. (Duke University Press: 2018)
Through the instruction of old and new, far and near ancestors, practices of refusal run in our blood. I return over and over to American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Sojourner Truth, and her powerful speech delivered at the Women’s Convention in Ohio, in 1851. Being refused humanity and womanhood, Sojourner Truth responds with a question that isn’t really a question; Ain’t I a Woman? She notes;
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”
This was one of many instances when Sojourner had practised refusal in order to liberate herself. Hers was a double refusal (refusing the refusal) as she also manipulated the extractive postcard industry (which at the time was used to further the colonial empire) to her advantage, selling images of herself taken in a photographer’s studio in order to fund her activism and support her abolitionist agenda. When we think of Sojourner Truth, we can think of refusal as a route of escape from hegemony. It is the stubborn refusal to conform—the embrace of odd constructions and the oddly constructed. This type of refusal runs toward crossroads, pathways, and intersections where things contradict and surprise—it is the beginning of queer theory before it was co-opted by Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and Gucci. Back when being “outside the norm” was a fugitive strategy of survival used by those who were cast to the margins and who understood the power of the space between resistance and capitulation as well as subservience and subversiveness.
But of course, refusal is also insurgency. It is also insurrection. Recalcitrance. Disorder. Withdrawal. An errant path. An action. Oftentimes, acts of refusal are small, unseizable, and repeated over time. Writing in, “At Daggers Drawn with the Existent, its Defenders and its False Critics“, an anonymous anarchist notes;
“If we refuse centralisation we must go beyond the quantitative idea of rallying the exploited for a frontal clash with power. It is necessary to think of another concept of strength—burn the census lists and change reality,” elaborating further; “[The] main rule: do not act en masse. Carry out actions in three or four at the most. There should be as many small groups as possible and each of them must learn to attack and disappear quickly.”
These insurrectionary principles of carrying out small unseizable actions over time, are visible in the methods of many artists and artist collectives across the world. Through his most recent body of work, South African artist Nolan Oswald Dennis gestures towards possible ways of refusal through the act of care. Dennis begins with the model of a globe of the world—used to map and organise the world. Refusing the systems that come with the singular mythology of the globe as an organising unit, Dennis draws on Black geographies and Black cosmography to investigate world endings. One of his works, “a garden for fanon” (2021), is an installation that meditates on care through the production and decompositions of knowledge. Within an environment filled with stands, glass globes, izinkhamba pots, and machines, earthworms are cared for as they consume the cellulose fibre of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Through this consumption, the worms turn the books into soil, pointing to the interactions between theory and the material world—a dialectic that considers both theoretical and objective conditions. I read Dennis’ gestures of care as a refusal against units of classification, as a rejection of accepted knowledges contained in mappings of the world, and as a reconsideration of hierarchical sutures that are placed between man and other species; theory and praxis.
Refusal is a contestation. It is fractures and fracturing. It is an anti-colonial revolt. It is the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program—We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people. It is Mick Jenkins’ y’all can’t just front on us niggas no mo’. For Black feminist theorist and member of the Practicing Refusal Collective, Tina Campt, refusal is not just a simple act of opposition or resistance, but a fundamental renunciation of terms of impossibility defining certain subjects. While for the Sudanese Crystalists, a group of artists who produced a radical manifesto in Khartoum in 1975, refusal came in the form of pleasure. Pleasure was considered the sole measurement of man’s essence, functioning as both a means and an end, as time as well as space and direction—containing the multiplicity and duality of truth. If the goal was “trying to live free”, then pleasure was the manner through which to achieve it. I think of pleasure as joy. Queer joy! Black joy! Deep-capacious-all-consuming-sensual-radical joy.
I’ve also learnt that refusal can be gentle and warm. While Audre Lorde reminds us to refuse the master’s tools, bell hooks reminds us that love is the antidote to colonial violence. That we can refuse by loving. Loving ourselves and loving each other. Deep-capacious-all-consuming- sensual-radical love as refusal.
Practices of refusal are not only useful conceptual frames but are also catalysts towards possibilities for constructing new conditions of Black life. They exist as grand refusals recorded and documented throughout history but also, to evoke Hartman again, as quieter moments that reflect on everyday choreographies of the possible. What continues to make refusing useful is not that it is radical or novel, but that it continues to inspire actions (and non-actions) that yield real results in our quests for freedom. Refusal against the unending ruthless crisis of anti-Blackness. Refusal against heteronormativity. Refusing Black death. Refusing gender and class oppression. Refusing now. Refusing together.
NKGOPOLENG MOLOI is a writer and photographer based in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa and is excited and intrigued by history, art, language and architecture.
DONOVAN EDWARDS is a multi-disciplinary artist out of Portland, Oregon. Singer, lover, writer, mischief-maker. Seeker of magic in all things.