Spaces Between Us

(Pictured: Isaiah Tanenbaum, Corey Allen, Anna Rahn. Photo by Justin Hoch. From Kevin R. Free’s AM I DEAD? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave.)

“Because the cultural identity formation of most Oceanic people is relational rather than individualistic, it follows that the spaces or between and among persons, or between a person and his/her environment, together with the frameworks that determine such relationships, must be nurtured and protected.” -Konai Helu Thaman, Intersecting Cultures in Music and Dance Education: An Oceanic Perspective

When we fall in love as immature beings, we want no space between us and the beloved. Consume, consumed, consummation. It is mature love that nurtures and protects the space between us. When nurtured, this space becomes a source of renewal and abundance. We stand guard at the edge of each other’s mysteries. So protected, we swim more deeply into our own unknowns. Our closeness needs a little distance. Our apartness makes us whole.

But when we worship ownership, the center cannot hold, and love falls apart. And in a culture founded on the ownership of bodies, that space can be very hard to nurture and protect. Whiteness must own. Maleness must own. And so they fear the power of the space between.

This makes intimacy, which is already the work of a lifetime, that much harder. In my anti-oppression work, I have witnessed this imperative of ownership corrode the spaces between. Love falls apart, or teeters on the precipice and never breathes easy.

Here are Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde in conversation (from Sister Outside, of course):

ADRIENNE: But there’s a way in which, trying to translate from your experience to mine, I do need to hear chapter and verse from time to time. I’m afraid of it all slipping away into: ‘Ah, yes, I understand you.’ You remember, that telephone conversation was in connection with the essay I was writing on feminism and racism. I was trying to say to you, don’t let’s let this evolve into “You don’t understand me” or “I can’t understand you” or “Yes, of course we understand each other because we love each other.” That’s bullshit. So if I ask for documentation, it’s because I take seriously the spaces between us that difference has created, that racism has created. There are times when I simply cannot assume that I know what you know, unless you show me what you mean.
AUDRE: But I’m used to associating a request for documentation as a questioning of my perceptions, an attempt to devalue what I’m in the process of discovering.
ADRIENNE: It’s not. Help me to perceive what you perceive. That’s what I’m trying to say to you.
AUDRE: But documentation does not help one perceive. At best it only analyzes the perception. At worst, it provides a screen by which to avoid concentrating on the core revelation, following it down to how it feels. Again, knowledge and understanding. They can function in concert, but they don’t replace each other. But I’m not rejecting your need for documentation.
I have returned to this exchange many times since first reading it. It speaks to how difficult it is for us as White people to nurture the spaces between ourselves and the Black people we (claim to) love. How exhausting it must be, to always document yourself for the discovery of others. In a different way, I feel this exhaustion as a trans person in a cis world.
(Pictured: Logan Browning “Sam” andJohn Patrick Amedori “Gabe” in Dear White People)
These dynamics are dramatized beautifully in Episode 8, Season 2 of Dear White People, where the characters are quite literally engaged in a battle of documentation. The episode is a short play between two lovers, Gabe and Sam, who alternate between documenting and trying to truly witness each other. When they speak personally, they turn their recording devices off, only to snap them back on again when the personal turns political. But what the episode makes painfully clear is that (of course) the personal is always political. The space between can never breathe easy.
There is a line in Kevin R. Free’s AM I DEAD? The Untrue Narrative of Anatomical Lewis, The Slave that returns me with regular force. In a purgatory for people who have wronged black men in intimate relationships, one of the damned asks a deity of that place where the white men are. She means the ones who directly enact the physical torture and murder of black bodies. The deity responds:
To answer your question: The Lawbreakers are in another room. You are the
spiritbreakers.
How do we stop being spiritbreakers? I think it starts with the daily disruption of the ownership imperative hardwired into White culture. To offer witness rather than demand documentation. And then, to love the spaces between ourselves. To trust their mysteries. And to be courageous in the face of their abundance.

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