August 5, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsReading

Ghost Stories, Systems

Between sad, hateful blats from Trump’s trumpet and the usual political dogwhistles came the (largely unheard in national mainstream media) dirges for three (more) Black women killed, in the words of Dr. Brittney Cooper, by “acts of state-sanctioned and intimate partner violence.” Read her whole piece, “Connect the Dots: For Korryn Gaines, Skye Mockabee, and Joyce Quaweay” for Crunk Feminist Collective here.

“Can we talk for a moment about patriarchy?” she asks, raising uncomfortable questions about intersectional oppressions and violences—questions about whose deaths society (even within activist movements) seems to deem “worthy” of outcry, and under what circumstances. To say that the circumstances of Korryn Gaines’s death were “complicated” should not mean that we wash our hands of injustices and tragedy. It should not mean we learn nothing or discuss nothing. In case you read the article and not the comments, I appreciated some of Cooper’s follow up comments:

It’s the convergence of many things—disability, poverty, housing discrimination, militarism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, all on the body of a 23yr old Black woman/girl (and her baby). It’s soul crushing. One of my friends said, “The state been killing her since childhood.”

And after some say that Gaines’s own poor decisions and potential instability mean that her death, unlike others, doesn’t “warrant a rallying cry”:

There were two stories this week out of Virginia and Oklahoma, where white men shot at and jumped on the cops, respectively, and somehow both these men lived. I want all police to practice the same de-escalation tactics for Black folks as they manage to practice for white men having mental issues or being unduly aggressive each and every day. Nothing short of outrage is warranted here.


In her poem “come celebrate with me,” Lucille Clifton writes:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and a woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

So many should still be here to celebrate the same.


Last night, I attended this month’s “Hey You, Come Back: A Reading Series,” featuring Molly Lynch, Marie Mokuba, and Justin Sanders. While all three gave terrific readings (fifteen-year-old Marie Mokuba’s figure of “the dunes in my diaphragm” still echoes in my mind), Justin Sanders’s voice was new to me, and like those of the other two readers, it is a vital one. After hearing him read, I bought his book of stories, for all the other ghosts, published just this year. Of his book, he writes, “It’s ghost stories. It’s shit that really happened.” The insistence that these two statements are both true is his work’s unsettling strength. In a section that begins with the “everydayness” of “We used to catch fireflies in jars, Lena and I,” we arrive through narrative at:

She’s the woman because we don’t know her name. Like we don’t know the names of all the black women whose bodies hung like ornaments from iron trestles. We don’t know their names but we can still see their faces. Look at the water under any bridge and they’ll be there, staring back at you. The bodies hung there so long the reflections got trapped in the rivers. Look long enough and you’ll see her staring back at you, the marks from the noose still visible around her neck, the same as I see Lena there, in the water below bridges.

In “WND,” we follow along as Oyani leads Nefertia “back down the fire escape and inside a boarded-up rowhome through one of the busted out windows . . . through the rotting frame to a graffiti-covered basement with a dirt floor.” One whited out wall features a “sprawling crooked tree” surrounded by “ordered arcing lines” of “blood red” names:

Nefertia will run her hand over the names. Some she’ll know, having seen them before on the sides of buildings or dumpsters. Others will be unfamiliar. All of them girls, all of them taken, missing.
“I remember their names. We all remember each other’s name,” Oyani will say. “We make everyone else see and remember their names. We make them exist even when they tried to erase them. Put a dead girl’s name on a wall and that girl comes back.”
Nefertia will understand then, and they will both feel it, Nefertia and Oyani. They will know they are in the presence of something sacred and profane. “Wytches,” they’ll say in unison and they’ll understand that to mark themselves as such means to be viewed as a defiler. But if what they will be defiling are symbols of men and the sickening erased neatness of things, then they will take defilement into their skin. (52)


When I saw the cover of for all the other ghosts, I recognized it as the photograph of the lynching of Laura and L.D. Nelson, with their bodies removed from the image – instead, on Sanders’ cover, two empty nooses hang from a bridge crowded with onlookers in Okemah, Oklahoma. I wrote about Terrance Hayes’s poem about the same image, “A Postcard from Okemah,” this month last year, in the post “A Postcard From—.” In that post, I referred to my colleague Hollis Robbins’s article “The Literature of Lynching,” noting another writer who used a photograph of a lynching while drawing the attention away from the “spectacle” of the Black body and toward the more horrifying spectacle of the onlookers:

Robbins’s article begins with a photograph of a 1930 lynching in Indiana; this same photograph, “Public Lynching,” is one of the images included in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (Graywolf, 2014), though in Citizen, photographer and filmmaker John Lucas (Rankine’s husband and ongoing multimedia collaborator) has altered the image to obscure the hanging human bodies in the darkness of the night background, while leaving the white bodies (smiling, pointing, gawking, indifferent) lit in the camera’s flash. 

An Aimé Césaire quote functions as entrance into Justin Sanders’s 2016 for all the other ghosts:

will it be said, in order to minimize them, that these corpses don’t prove anything?

An Aimé Césaire quote also functions as entrance into Claudia Rankine’s 2004 Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric:

And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear . . .

I don’t know if this connection is intentional, and if it seems that I am intending to place Sanders in a literary “lineage” descended from Rankine, I am not. If anything, that’s what I find so compelling in these overlaps: they both write from the urgency of addressing race and systemic racism and lived realities, they both even turn to quotes from the same author to frame their investigations, and feature similar alterations of similarly horrific historical images, yet this is where summarizing literature through what it’s “about” falls terribly short. Though their subject matter is shared and vital, their aesthetic “interventions” create entirely different works of art and worlds. Rankine’s style of lyric documentary insists that we see the world “as it is,” asking us to look closer at the micro (and macro) aggressions that shape the surface and interior of everyday life. Sanders accesses the supernatural and the grotesque to unsettle us from our usual way of seeing the world “as it is,” asking us to look beyond the events of everyday life to a world where the emotional and physical tolls of racism, sexism, and violence take on lives of their own, “monstrous” in their agency and insistence, their refusal to be unseen or silent.

This is where I get on my soapbox and say that, though I am certainly an admirer of Citizen and believe that it absolutely deserved the attention it received, I don’t want to let the powers-that-be (literary or otherwise) anoint one voice or a few voices to speak for and represent particular realities. Rankine’s voice has the most agency in a world where other voices have agency as well. Listen to young voices like Marie Mokuba, and to emerging writers like Sanders’s voices too—including his ghosts. While Rankine creates poetry that documents like prose, Sanders creates prose that complicates and moves as poetry. He writes:

So here’s a story: 
One morning in Black Baltimore we walk outside and see fire in the distance. Not everyone on the street can see it. And those of us who do describe it differently. Some of us see blue smoke and no flames, others see the sky turned burning coral and smell perfume like flowers and salt. I see a world in shades of black and gray and the light beating down from the sun is cold and only illuminates the hard and dirty places. To me the fire is colorless but the smoke is so thick and acrid that my eyes water no matter how often I wipe them . . .

And ends with a call to art:

I know that I can’t turn back. I unsling my backpack and pull out the spray paint. I’ll make everyone remember along the way.



Order Sanders’s book at and follow him on Twitter @ghostmoan.