The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues
SEPT 2020 Issue
Critics Page

On Confinement

There is nothing worse than knowing that you have no choices. Every itch and irritant intensifies when hands are tied, unable to scratch. Confinement magnifies the worst of everything.

When I consider confinement, my mind wanders to the terrors of the Middle Passage. Fear of the unknown, the violence of an oppressor, the hopelessness of captivity and the unbearable torture of confinement. Chains and shackles linking me to others on every side. Being stacked so close there is no room to breathe between myself and the next. Synchronizing breath, contorting bodies to find some relief from the constant touching of skin. The stench of our collective bodies, dead and alive, so close I can taste them all when I inhale. The inability to know time magnifies all anxieties for I know not when it will end. There is no escape. Not in my mind. Not even unto death. There is only confinement. And even when led from the bowels of a ship into new and uncharted territories, I am ushered into yet another brutal state of confinement. My God.

Elizabeth Bishop, <em>John Lewis Pop</em>, 2020. Courtesy the artist.</em></em>
Elizabeth Bishop, John Lewis Pop, 2020. Courtesy the artist.

My God knows me well enough to have birthed me to the generation unto which I was born, with “limited limitations” and the trappings of comfort. I never would’ve survived that middle passage kind of confinement. I can barely tolerate uncomfortable shoes or a bra for longer than necessary, so I know prolonged periods being shackled in rancid, itchy, sweaty, tight spaces would have been the death of me. To be denied autonomy, the right to bathe regularly, eat healthily, learn to read and write, or simply to rest is unfathomable, inhumane, and unjust. I will not take space here to describe the ravages of brutality for which I have no adequate adjective other than evil, yet I will acknowledge them as an inextricable thread in the tapestry of the strength of my people.

The confinement of Black people is like a shapeshifting hologram on repeat. Moving through generations it has taken on many forms: social construct, chain gang, black code, a crow called Jim, school detention, low expectations, standardized tests, housing projects, prison, a box to check, a policy, a glass ceiling, a whole system. Confinement elusively twists and contorts itself around us, binding limbs like invisible shackles, constricting lungs like thick smoke until it cuts off our oxygen with a knee to our necks, our faces scraping the pavement. Rest In Power.

While some of us slip between bars and fall through cracks to find spaces wide enough to stretch our legs, run, throw, catch, and perhaps even dance a little (but never to take a knee), many of our kind still remain an enclave enslaved. Banished to the banal basements of our minds: dark, destitute, and without windows or fresh air. Hunched in low, dank spaces unable to catch a glimpse of a miracle or even dare to imagine a way out. Forgetting that we ourselves are the light.

Now is an interesting time in our world. Everyone’s freedom has been compromised. We are confined by the ever-present threat of the covert killer, COVID-19. Contained. Pinned down. Restricted. Yet here we are, in the midst of revolution, the transformation of our nation at hand. Cobwebs are being cleared as we awaken from a restless, fitful, drunken slumber. We struggle to dig ourselves out of our own graves which have been dug deep by the ploughs of white domination, anti-Black violence, and misogynistic patriarchy. We push past the broken bodies of our comrades who’ve fallen victim to the state-sanctioned violence intended for us all. “Us” being us of a darker hue whose bodies blend with the soil from which we emerge. The struggle to break through has been the challenge of our lifetime for the soil is hard, compact, and has been baking for centuries under the broil of the devil’s sun. To puncture its crust takes the strength of millions and perched at its surface, a boot to kick us back down, a shovel to bury us alive again. Yet we call on the poetically prophetic wisdom of our ancestors and still, like dust and air we rise.

We rise to scream truth to power at the top of our lungs until in solidarity, we too cannot breathe. We rise to press reset on The Reconstruction. We rise to rebuild Greenwood and resurrect Rosewood. We rise to till, plant, sow, and harvest our own goods that cannot be stolen, co-opted, gentrified, or appropriated. We rise to emerge from the kitchen and take our seat at the table as we too, sing America: marching toward Black Lives Matter Plaza in our nation's capital, operating labs to test the incubators of innovation, groping to find our way to the elusive, moving target that is our ballot box. We too, sing America as we are appointed into the rooms where our own fates have been sealed for generations. We break the seal everytime.

Those mysterious rooms are not just offices shaped like ovals, they are boardrooms, delivery rooms, classrooms, and online forums. These are the places that have too often been out of reach for too many of “us,” and since necessity is the mother of invention and we are the Mother of all nations, of course, it is inherent within us to build our own. Black@EVERYTHING is as undefeated as the internet itself. And when we do choose to find ourselves in those mysterious rooms, it is imperative that we come equipped with the correct tools. Our artistic ancestors advise that those of the oppressor we must never use, for his tools are rendered useless in the dismantling of his own house, even if that house was built with our very own hands.

So we must forge our own tools, chart our own course, find our own joy, and set our own standards. We will not be confined. We will not be controlled. We will not conform. We will always Resist. Reclaim. Engage. Protest. Remix. Reinvest. Redistribute. Rebuild. Read. Write. Vote. Rebel. Rest. Recharge. Reimagine. Repeat.

Philadelphia PA x Brooklyn NY


Nicole Hamilton

Nicole Hamilton is a radical educator, trainer, curriculum designer, youth worker, circle keeper, and community builder currently working for Girls for Gender Equity as the Director of Community Partnerships.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues