We are presently living in a time with no hours or days or months, swallowed up by endless grief. It is not an unspooling and rolling up—a simultaneous flow of the present with the accumulation of the past, as we are meant to feel—but more like a falling and floating, upside-down feeling. Something that makes us feel guilty for being alive while quite certain of near death. Our recent intimacies with loss both near (a cousin from Covid, a friend from suicide, a friend’s uncle from Covid, a friend from cancer) and far (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Marcellis Stinnette, and so many others from police murder, Corky Lee from Covid, David Graeber from necrotic pancreatitis) make us understand acutely that nearness and farness are actually not so distant from each other after all. How do we understand and internalize this nearness and that farness, which makes us experience time in distinct ways?
To say we are living in unprecedented times is to recognize that
what we experience on a daily basis is what should be unimaginable. But what happens when the unimaginable becomes the very fabric of
our existence? In the US, a delivery of the rare guilty verdict of
murderous racist agents of the state—like the case of
Derek Chauvin—does not bring us joys of justice,
just as much as the verdicts proclaiming innocence of murderous
white supremacist vigilantes—like the case of
Kyle Rittenhouse—does not bring us unexpected
horror. These trials could never be what we want them to be. This is
not our justice. This is our rage. We have known this in our bones a
long, long time: a grief we live within, learning to hone our
skills. We study the past and the present, we learn from both. We
understand that we have inherited a vocabulary of loss, and also one
of struggle. We know that there is not one collective body, but
bodies in a collective, each wounded in different ways. Each and
together fighting how we know best.
The year 1968 began on January 30. At least, according to the lunar calendar, which tracks time by the monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases, rather than by the time that the Sun takes to return to the same position from the perspective standing on Earth, as in the Gregorian solar calendar. Each lunation cycle is approximately 29 1/2 days, so in years where there are 12 lunations, there are 354 days, 8 hours, 48 minutes, and 34 seconds, which is 11 or 12 days less than the Gregorian calendar’s solar year.
On the first day of the lunar year 1968, the year of the Earth Monkey, the North Vietnamese launched what we have come to know as the Tết Offensive (in Vietnamese, Sự kiện Tết Mậu Thân 1968), a singular event that has sedimented this particular year of tumultuous political upheaval in our collective memories. It is a year that occurred before either of us were born, but we are the manifestation of all that transpired during this year, all that we have inherited: anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist struggles that have, since that moment (and before that moment), gone on and on and on and on. When we put our bodies on the street in a fit of rage and love, we are of that moment and inside that moment and beyond that moment, all at the same time. That is both our strength and our weakness: a predicament.
Two images. One: the cover of a Life magazine issue from February 9, 1968. A Vietnamese soldier with both hands in the air is flanked, held by the shoulder by two white American soldiers carrying machine guns. The Vietnamese soldier is bloodied with a wild look in his eyes; the two white soldiers look bewildered, uncertain. Two: The photo of Robert F. Williams and wife Mabel F. Williams as they pose with guns in hand announcing that Black people in Monroe, NC have shed their fear against the terror of white supremacists (many acting on behalf of the state) and are organizing for self-defense ready to fire back. The image was captured in 1962, but the story of the Williamses (which included their two children) unravels across many years, many geographies and revolutionary strategies (mainly Cuba and China) and traversed many people’s minds. There are two known images of Robert and Mabel Williams holding arms. We return to these photographs again and again. The material remains of this year, this era, are the images that have populated our imaginations in fragments that are taken up, piled up, accumulated like so much debris, and offered back to us on a platter as if it was whole to begin with. Trinh T. Minh-ha has warned us that when this happens, when history is separated from story, we fool ourselves into believing that the Futures we urgently desire and need are simply there “in its entirety, waiting to be revealed and related.” So while the year 1968 has become shorthand for encapsulating an era, we take nonlinear moments to not simply contextualize 1968 but to begin to create a kind of mycelial index—like William Cordova’s expansive, interconnected playlist that spans time—to insist and affirm what we know to be underneath: the branching, interconnected and overlapping threads that have neither beginning nor end.
If we deny a beginning and an end, our Return to the Source is predicated on paradox. The archive (as concept, material, and structure) is both necessary for our project’s liberatory tenor, but also its fatal flaw. By working through this paradox, we challenge the attention to “the event” as a singular unit by examining the archive not only as the material trace of a historically fixed point, but also as the ways in which state-sanctioned narratives contain and reify colonial violence. Following Lisa Lowe’s methodology in The Intimacy of Four Continents, this project hopes to formulate other ways of knowledge production “so that we might understand the processes through which the forgetting of violent encounters is naturalized, both by the archive, and in the subsequent narrative histories.”1
We are the byproducts of “American” empire, so we understand intimately that there is no way to return—no pure moment of before. At the same time, we know that the attempt to “return to the source of our own being”2 is a revolutionary process that we must go through, as articulated and exemplified by the life and writings of Guinean revolutionary and thinker Amilcar Cabral, from whom we have conceptually borrowed the title for this project. A return to the source may be taken to mean a return to a history as an effort to revise, to amend, to rectify; it is also an effort to encounter a source as a possible beginning of something available for alteration and to begin anew.
Returning is a deliberate task—it defies temporality without losing sight of historical precedents or sites of occurrence. It is also a journey that can dislocate and discover a truth, but not settle on it. For Cabral, a return to the source was a provocation and a reflection on those who could transform the history of Guinea, and more specifically those who would fight against “the foreign culture but also the foreign domination as a whole.” His was an urgent call to forge a collective identity where the masses are the basis for the constitution of the struggle, and more specifically, the potential of what he calls out as what could be the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney consider what Cabral’s provocation might mean for black study—an opportunity to face our own positions and the fundamental discomfort within our own ranks. Taking Cabral’s “The Weapon of Theory” as their starting point, Moten and Harney poke their finger in the hidden wound of black study, one that has both constituted its own unfolding and its own undoing: “The petty bourgeoisie claims to speak—from a position it assumes but cannot avow—for those who discover the oxygen it can barely produce; it claims to breathe for those who can no longer breathe; it claims to be here, now, for those whose presence was never so easily plotted. It does this unintended, immaterial labor with the best of intentions while postcolonial malaise is visited not upon actual imperial power but upon the petty bourgeois intellectuals themselves—unwitting, and even unwilling, compradors who ‘choose’ the moralistic (out)rage for rhetorical purity that ‘decolonization’ has become over the endless, fugitive, anti-colonial struggle for the survival of ante-colonial life, which is running out of time, as it always has.” They pose the possibility of Cabral’s necessary act of “suicide as a class” as a distinctly political act, one in which we must not take power nor democratize but in fact refuse it absolutely. Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn similarly takes up this provocation in his multichannel video installation The Specter: There Is No Indochine, understanding that radical solidarities and radical love can mean a betrayal of class and social identifications, which are ultimately binding and irrevocable acts.
Cabral first used the phrase Return to the Source in a speech in 1972 as he received an honorary doctoral degree at Lincoln University, a Historically Black College in Pennsylvania. Return to the Source is also the title of a book published by the Africa Information Service in conjunction with the Monthly Review in 1973. It’s a collection of a number of Cabral’s essays and speeches translated as an attempt to locate a source to situate the trajectory of the PAIGC (Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde, or the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) and more so of Cabral. Cabral was a tireless leader in the struggle the PAIGC waged against the Portuguese.
As every word he wrote and publicly delivered reveals, Cabral was a theorist largely concerned with history as a process. He warned against the focus on the “accumulation of facts”3 that we associate with revolutionary fervor.
Cabral was murdered in 1973 after having started the fight for liberation in 1956. In that heap of years Cabral dedicated to intellectual and on-the-ground struggle, the world was set on fire–from Việt Nam to Mexico to Chile to the streets of cities across the United States—by people seeking, demanding, and pursuing their own liberation. Subaltern subjects, ignited by the emancipatory possibilities of radical politics, participated in these intentional and choreographed movements of revolutionary action across the globe.
For Cabral, as for other revolutionaries before and after him, liberation was a slow-moving force that required an understanding of the present conditions, and thus was affected by time, as much as by geography, and social and political orders. The historical record has given us fragments of these events and has positioned 1968 as a particular moment of revolutionary activity, as if the year could stand on its own temporal plinth. However, institutions—the same ones that repress us across various geographies—have a certain durability that supersedes the narratives around the event. And so, while slow-moving, revolutions—and revolts as their preludes—are in constant motion, pushing to correct the record or make other pieces of their wholes available for collective view.
Our source, perhaps in the most literal sense, is the archive, which we interrogate in order to make legible the violent collisions across national and narrative boundaries—collisions made invisible by the very structuring of the archive. At the same time, the contributions in this publication also point us to a geographical scope where historical relationality is woven through what the archive illuminates in their poetic and material encounters.
Over the last fifty years, experimentations with the archive across disciplines have proliferated, part of the machinery of ‘memory cultures’ that have been accelerated most recently by the formal transformation of archives into digital platforms as well as by a longer, broader turn towards the commodification of memory and our contemporary era of racial and global capitalism, which violently set into motion massive waves of human migration. As Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s film, Vietnam the Movie, reveals, the narratives of empire are sedimented over time, which arrests us in time while giving the illusion that history has moved on. As Bùi Kim Đĩnh articulates in her essay about the film, Nguyễn’s return to “Vietnam” as a site of fictional narratives is an assertion of “nothingness and to the simplicity of formless substance”—a defiance of the continual historical assertion that Việt Nam mean something to us.
So we return to the source as a way to interrogate both official and unofficial archives and enliven its spaces with stories that activate recollection: stories that serve as witness to those violent and intimate encounters. We because we know that our pasts are never dead, and the singular story is never the story. We take to heart Cedric Robinson’s articulation of this vital aspect of the Black Radical Tradition: “There’s no possibility of really telling a Black story without telling other people’s stories. I can tell it in the nationalist trope. And the nationalist trope, in effect, will be guilty of repeating the artificialities that I’m trying to oppose, those kinds of boundaries.”4 We also oppose those kinds of boundaries, and hope, with this collection of voices, stories, and images, to eschew narratives that adhere to nationalist divisions, understanding intimately the ways that contours of one struggle inevitably rub up against the contours of another, despite totalizing narratives that might otherwise harden these intricate forms and shapes.
Beyond the frame is expansive. This is the space in which we dwell, like Deborah Willis, in ruminating with love and affection on a lesser-known image taken by the iconic photographer Gordon Parks. Or like KURS, on the few images around the 1968 student movement in Yugoslavia that are publicly accessible. For Willis, her focus is on one image that was published in a long photo essay about the Fontenelle family in Life magazine in 1967. Parks’ photo essay, called “A Harlem Family,” is a devastating story of the economic effects of systemic racism. The image that Willis chooses to write about is an unspectacular image, and its significance lies in the meaning and relationship that are created between the photograph and Willis: this is the very potentiality that political theorist Ariella Azoulay articulates in arguing for an ontological-political understanding of photography, one that allows for this open-ended space of relations between photographers, photographed people, and spectators, a space which denies meaning as singular, closed or unidirectional. What the Fontenelles are denied as a result of violent structures of white supremacy is somehow reconstituted through the moment of encounter with Willis, and indeed, likely thousands and thousands of others who laid their eyes on that image in 1967 and subsequent years. How do we account for all those eyes, for the multiples of this image encountered, circulated, cropped, resized, embedded?
The corners of history inhabit large spaces that seem to evoke both memory and erasure, and in fact operate under both registers. Mired in the state’s authorship, what one might find in the archive are the edges of truth, so we fill the gaps by questioning the archive itself, and the conditions of violence that might have produced it, as Azoulay cautions,5 or that they produce in crafting the official story. It is also true that while the archive indexes the past, it breathes in the new (the new reading, the new imaginings, the new characters, places, ideas...); it is living, which suggests that “it is present, ongoing, and continuing.”6 We may take this to mean that it is in its passive state, silently huddled around other materials. The task is then to strip 1968 from the symbolic power ascribed to a particular geography and a particular narrative.
Consider David Austin’s telling of the events that transpired in Montreal in 1968 when a group of intellectuals of revolutionary inclinations gathered for the Congress of Black Writers. This was the third iteration of the convening of the Presence Africaine in 1956, which was followed by the Second Congress in Rome in 1959. Montreal was of particular importance. Led and organized by the Caribbean Conference Committee, it centered the Caribbean not as adjacent to Europe as the colonial divisions might have shown, but rather as an epicenter of the chronicles of C.L.R. James, George Lamming, and Bobby Hill, among others who had gathered there. At that point, it had been thirty years since James had published The Black Jacobins, the book that, in narrating the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian revolution, provided a map for demarcating the Caribbean—and arguably the Atlantic as a whole—through lines of Black revolt. Although many of the Conference attendees were James’s pupils (directly or indirectly), he was not there as a teacher, but to establish the dynamism of genealogies. In other words, his presence was not to situate an origin,7 but rather to point to the multitude of forces and temporalities the historical process is imbued with, and to the many colluding paths.
Revolutionary histories tend to be diminished in the service of quelling the future of revolutionary struggles. Naeem Mohaiemen’s attention to expand the narratives of (mostly) unfinished insurgencies in Bangladesh is the entry point to the familiar-sounding stridence of The Stooges’ 1969, a track oddly released in the eponymous year against the backdrop of the dozens of uprisings in the United States and the American war in Việt Nam. 1969, a sort of anthem of boredom from the vantage point of a 21-year-old complaining of having “nothing to do,” is ushered into a different constellation of historical meanings in Mohaiemen’s 1968 O Monu. In the voice of another 21-year-old, perhaps a student involved in the revolts that dotted the political landscape of Bangladesh in the 60s, time is not an inevitable burden, but rather a marker of what could have been, of the “dreams of revolution burnt to ashes.” The Bangla lyrics stay true to the rock-and-roll sound, but what we seem to hear is a lament tainted by love for the revolutionary possibility, and for a lover-turned-comrade in revolution.
For those of us who attend to histories as if listening, our labor is to get closer to the workings of memory—however broken, and however mediated by apparatuses, bodies, transmitters. To listen is to understand who it is that we listen to, what we listen for, and for what purpose. This listening is not, as Trinh T. Minh-ha warns us, to take hold of the knowledge we grasp, but to sit nearby. To be with it without owning it. This listening (or speaking) nearby allows us to listen not only for what is told, but also for what is not: silences.
Transformation is moved by silence, as Fred Moten would suggest.8
In the conversation between Miss Major and Toshio Meronek, listening becomes the device of history. They listen to each other; Major listened to Big Black Smith; Big Black listened to his fellow Attica prisoners demanding that the carceral system come to an end;9 Major listened to the gurls; Major listened to her body; she listened to the collective body as the echo of many bodies trapped by unfreedom.
As Miss Major reminds us, the specter of the horrors the Attica rebellion brought to light are part of the fabric of the carceral state. Fifty years ago, the men at Attica demanded that their brutal conditions be changed by first drafting a list of 27 demands to Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. On September 9, 1200 prisoners took over the facility and held hostage 40 people hoping for their demands to be met. By September 13, Rockefeller did not budge, and instead amassed thousands of National Guardsmen, State Troopers and Corrections Guards to retake the prison. In a bloody attack, 29 inmates were killed, along with 10 of the hostages.
History presupposes a collection of facts of that which has transpired. But history is an instrument of narrative. The co-constitutive nature of both narrative and history makes it hard to discern their particularities, although we must be aware of the danger in this conflation.10 The historical necessity Rabab Abdulhadi alludes to is a designation by the state of Israel to assert its right of Israel over Palestine, the land, its people, its statehood. Here the instrumentation is key, as is necessity. For “History,” as Jameson argues, “is the experience of Necessity”; it “can only be apprehended only through its effects, and never directly as some reified force,” he contends.11
Embute, which we have translated as “hideaway” in Sol Henaro’s essay, needs further definition. Henaro approaches the archive in material form, which she reminds us is not akin to its visibility or accessibility. People have their own archives they have intentionally and unintentionally kept and preserved—and hidden, particularly under repressive movements where collective memory is constantly being erased. Embute, scholar Ana Longoni tells us, is part of a narrative recently spoken of, but common amongst Argentinian militants of the 60s and 70s. It refers to that precarious and ingenuous space where clandestine activity can take place in order to hide compromising documents, weapons, people, letters, or to exchange crucial correspondence. It can be, in her words: “a secret drawer in a piece of furniture, or compartment in a suitcase, a false floor of a car, the lining of a pen, a fold in one’s body.”12
There’s a certain doctrinal order of history that the texts here append by way of method or practice. They are concerned with splintering time to create proximities and a collapse of the distance between events, people, places. There are no false premises of equivalencies, but more likely a gesture to the provocation Trouillot sets forth when he makes the past, “or more accurately, pastness” a position. “Thus, in no way,” he continues, “can we identify the past as past.”13 somoslacélula insists on looking at 1968 from the present, ensuring that the lines be drawn between the resistance of the Mapuche, Licantay and other indigenous communities today, and the state violence enacted by the Pinochet dictatorship from 1973–1990. Because the continuation of violence cannot be accounted for without the continuation of resistance.
In their assemblage of images, where a constant background of men walk in a line bearing tools to work the land, such as a sickle, a shovel, and sharpened sticks, the narrators take turns talking about the barbed wire. They define the barbed wire as an imposed border, an occupation, a violent weapon, what keeps bodies and natures at bay, ultimately designating it as an enclosure, a necessary operation of colonialism. When we get to hear Emelina Sagredo’s testimony, the film takes us back to 1932 and the Ranquil Uprising, or the Mapuche-peasant resistance that committed to taking back the land the state was seizing—only to bring us to the 1960s, when a group of Mapuche once again form a front to take back the land that, in the words of Sagredo, “always belonged to us.”
Quantification to the point of erasure of specificity can work against history. The PAIGC, as Sonia Vaz Borges shows us, collected their own data as a strategy for keeping records of how their tactics yielded concrete results toward the goal of total liberation. It is a statistical maneuver to correct the violence exercised through colonial administrative accounting.
In the spirit of revolutionary victory that Maxwell Stanford (a.k.a. Muhammad Ahmad) wrote about and practiced for many years as one of the founders of Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and a member of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), there’s a similar reminder. He writes that, contrary to the oppressor’s statistics, the slave revolts were well organized, involved thousands of enslaved people, and sometimes had international implications. These revolts occurred on the average of every three weeks for a three-hundred-year period. The animus of weaving these histories into the renewed tactics for national liberation, as devised in 1964, was to establish the record of what was possible because it had been done before many times over.
As Cabral taught us, we have to accept the limits of history but not the limits imposed by the societies where we are living.14