By Tommy Airey
Earlier this month, I started Bayo Akomolafe’s recently-released These Wilds Beyond Our Fences seeking spiritual solidarity. Like most, my soul has been squeezed by concentric circles of cacophony. Climate catastrophe rages (globally) while a major political party (led almost exclusively by white men) denies it all and “successfully” utilizes weapons of voter suppression, legalized bribery, gerrymandering and Russian collusion to take full reigns of power (nationally and state-wide). Meanwhile, water shutoffs and home foreclosures pelt a city cloaked by leaders calling it a “comeback” (locally).
These rings of austerity and white supremacy have formed the ice rink of an epic institutional collapse. Families, faith communities, foundations, the “free” market and finance—these fail to offer compelling solutions for any of it. Instead, they drive the Zamboni. These are maddening times and no one, it seems, is really sure what to do about it. Confusion reigns.
These Wilds, though, does not offer a formula to eradicate the madness. Instead, the spiritual paradox and verve of Akomolafe’s writing serve to awaken and inspire. These paragraphs are elixirs offering “the generativity of grief,” “the gift of bewilderment” and dead ends that are “opportunities to reconfigure our notions of continuity.” There’s hope in coming to understand that “everything is caught in the trance of becoming” and that the wide wide world is “a compost heap that disciplines everything.” Our hope, in fact, is in con-fusion, “the messy mangling of things.”
These Wilds is a series of letters that Akomolafe writes to his young daughter. The topic he tasks himself with is to make sense of “home” in “this time of vexed exclusions, legitimized exterminations, and weaponized boundaries.” By no means is this a page-turner. It is a meditative masterpiece with built-in margins for marking up. Engaging the philosophical These Wilds is a percolation process. It does not pour. It drips.
Throughout, Akomolafe chips away at metanarratives, ideologies and anything else cohesive because “the world is too preposterous to be decided in one neat framework.” There are no good guys and bad guys. The world will be remade only if we do it together. He names varieties of religious piety, scientific perspicuity, genetic purity, political in/correctness and militant activism (or resistance by any other name) that are mired in their aloofness, independence, or aloneness. We will not be saved without “the other:”
These are the days of ritual, of changing parameters, of paradox, and of humble courage. These are the days of realizing our best answers and questions are always provisional. These are the days we must fall apart to become larger. These are the times of many voices. When those haunting have to be met…because the future is not fixed, and the past is yet to come.
Akomolafe admonishes an “anything goes” attitude. He also shuns “sustainable development,” a project that is purely economic, estranged from nature. Activism still matters. In fact, we are always acting and whatever this look like, it might possibly provide solutions to the great problems of evil. We must keep organizing and “continue to experiment, to theorize, to touch the always-fresh blister that is our tale of becoming.”
As we commit to love and good deeds, though, we are strangely guided by con-fusion, the motif of becoming generously lost. Most importantly for Akomolafe, we are called to decenter: “we don’t make the world alone, the world makes us too.” Now, more than ever, we must remember that we are vastly outnumbered by the more-than-human and that these are conspiring for us all in mysterious ways. Nothing but our full attention is required.
A native Nigerian, Akomolafe is a spiritual refugee who exited the academy and his budding career as a clinical psychologist. He and his wife (also a former university professor) moved to Chennai, India to soak in the “small, intense, intimate” life they long for. He is a post-Evangelical in his early thirties who has given up on praying to Jesus. But he’s full of a Spirit who keeps calling him “to know the intimate joys of living small, to relinquish my claim of ownership over myself and learn to play.”
There are deep biblical resonances throughout and Akomolafe gifts us by exploring some of them. “The rapture,” he writes, “is taking place right this moment, as it always has—in the ongoing dis/appearing of the never-whole.” The End Times come to pass in the middle. Everything happens right here, in “a cluttered world infused with the sacred.”
In his revised reading of the biblical creation story, Akomolafe homes in on Genesis 3:19, “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shall return.” He calls this God’s “annulment of the project of eternity and wholeness.” The details of our lives, and Life itself, show up only in traces, hints and residues. “Dust gives us a place, while reminding us that it isn’t ours to own forever.” Akomolafe connects this intimately with the death of his own father and his rejection of the Evangelical promise of seeing him again someday in heaven.
Instead, he experiences the presence of his father right now:
Perhaps his dust comingling with sky and soil flirted with the air around my ears, whispering my name. A mild haunting trace away.
These Wilds is a vital contribution to the ongoing project of decolonization. He takes it back to 1485, when Portuguese ships docked on the shores of Old Benin. African chiefs sold ivory, gold, oil and slaves to the white man who journeyed inland to teach the indigenous how to read and write and how to get saved. He writes of loss and dislocation, of “futures interrupted” and “dances halted.”
He confessionally describes himself as “a citizen of white normativity in my own land.” He acknowledges the importance of confrontation, anger and pain, but they have their limits:
And like a coconut forced open with sweat and toil only to serve a few drops of its tender fluids, asserting black identity felt like doing so much only to get so little.
Akomolafe homes in on what he calls “transraciality,” an understanding that “racism does not sprout from racist human bodies containing ignorance and hatred but intra-active relationships that are always yet-to-come.” He names an “inexhaustibleness” to identity that is severely limited by an overemphasis on race (and gender and sexuality/etc). Blackness, Akomolafe laments, was built by whiteness and obsessing over it “occludes the material vibrancy of the more-than-human world, snuffing out other places of power and hiding away the language of the trees.”
Akomolafe is not interested in a version of equality “framed in an anorexic, neoliberal apparatus.” He shares similar sentiments about feminism. His hope is in a “politics of possibilities” that is fully committed to the messiness and pain of “entanglements:”
Perhaps this is what whiteness can do: to ally with colored bodies and learn to develop “affective muscles” with which they can serve as generous conduits of rage—letting screams of “I hate white people!” be held not as evil or as something to be repressed but as the trans-affective flow that is dispersed in the world at large. To open up places and sites of inquiry where “I don’t know, and I’m not sure we have this figured out” is the theme of the gathering. To direct money toward projects of the commons that do not necessarily yield returns on investment.
Akomolafe questions time itself, lifting up indigenous non-Western cycles of life “not flowing forward from past to present then future, but entangled together in a thick now, so that the past is still accessible and the future can be remembered.” Memory, in fact, is vital because it provides opportunity to recreate the past:
It is not about erasing the tears of oppression that once landed on anonymous barren earth—the sorrows of our mothers and fathers. It is about the constant generativity of what is supposedly done but not forgotten. It is about what the past can yet become, what the tears falling to the ground might yet fertilize.
These Wilds is not prescriptive. Its delivers by stimulating the right-side of the reader’s brain. It inspires and ignites. Every page challenges The Colonial Script that constantly coerces us into “common sense” around every corner. Akomolafe’s life itself is a testimony to civil disobedience. He has rejected “making it.” He has climbed down the ladder because it leans against the high wall of Modernity, what he describes as “a phallic, ‘male-dominated’ rejection of anything that is ‘other.’” The hope is in the fact that “there are other powers, other agencies, and other clocks.” He beckons readers to summon the strength to pursue these and confront the few who benefit from The Colonial Script. Then, we tell them once and far all “there are other clocks, and we will not be on time.”
Ultimately, These Wilds Beyond Our Fences shimmers because Akomolafe dares to be himself, wounds and all. His humility is smeared all over every page. His voice is trusted because he has actually taken radical steps to starve his own legacy projects. He’s not perfect. And he writes about it. He’s not into purity tests or pointing fingers. Our primary task, in these times, is to kneel in awe of the immensity of life all around us. The more-than-human will have the final say in reality. As the ancient Vulnerable One proclaimed, when we all become dust, “even the stones will shout out.” As it turns out, only when we look beyond “our” solutions can we find spiritual solidarity.