Abolition From the Inside Out: In Conversation With Black Boy Out of Time's Hari Ziyad
Black Boy Out of Time is the debut memoir from Hari Ziyad, who is, among other things: editor in chief of Racebaitr, a 2021 Lambda Literary Fellow, and a prolific essayist. In a word, it is exquisite.
Central to the memoir is the concept of abolition, which refers to "a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment," per Critical Resistance. In practice, it looks a lot like living in actual community with one another: a true embrace of our perceived other beyond institutions that would sooner put people in cages and out of public view than address social problems like houselessness, inadequate healthcare, and unemployment, as trumpeted by abolitionist icon Angela Davis. According to Ziyad: "It all comes back to the work that we're doing to get free."
Ziyad writes with a clarity and a strength beyond any memoir in recent memory, interweaving writing on abolition and carcerality with a stirring series of letters to their younger self as part of their inner-child work. One of 19 children in a blended family, Ziyad was born to a Hindu Hare Krishna mother and a Muslim father in Cleveland, OH. They grew up Black, queer, and — like too many racialized kids are made to — achingly fast. But in their memoir, Ziyad dials back the clock and turns inward. Peeling away the restraints, they reveal a wealth of truths around the necessity of Black liberation to the Black child and to the adult they will variably become if given the grace to grow freely.
Carceral logic is so pervasive that the work of abolition goes beyond dismantling brick-and-mortar prisons and precincts that enact harm and deep into the psyche, which becomes a site of reproducing carceral logic until we consciously unlearn to.
With patience, Ziyad lays bare just how harmful the carceral state is to Black people and how intrinsic punitive thinking can be to how we understand our outer and even inner lives. Carceral logic is so pervasive that the work of abolition goes beyond dismantling brick-and-mortar prisons and precincts that enact harm and deep into the psyche, which becomes a site of reproducing carceral logic until we consciously unlearn to. Liberation, then, is inner work as much as it's outer work. Like a social archeologist, Ziyad looks to unearth their true self — the inner child — that lives underneath binary thinking and what they coin as misafropedia, or "the anti-Black disdain for children and childhood that Black youth experience." They encounter sites of trauma and come away with nuance and new meaning, tending to their inner child with the care of a loving parent. "I want to offer colonized Black people — and myself in particular — a type of roadmap for reclaiming the childhoods we sacrificed," Ziyad writes, "or that were forsaken for us because of misafropedia."
The joy of Black Boy Out of Time is in the unconditional love it emanates for all Black people and how it attends to the experiences of Black kids. It's in its utter dedication to freer, more daring Black futures; in its imagination. It's in the calm and the wisdom of its author, who is the kind of cultural critic and champion of Black liberation that our political moment yearns for. Hailed as "Black-loving art that is both shotgun and balm" by Darnell L. Moore, Black Boy Out of Time is just profoundly great, to the point that the best this reviewer can do is to ask you to read it and know it for yourself.
In February, I sat down one-on-one with Ziyad — then one-on-one plus a live "studio" audience (via Google Hangouts) as part of a speaker series at Group Nine Media — to talk about Black Boy Out of Time and the healing work of abolition in action.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PS: Reading this book feels like sitting in on a private meditation of yours that we the reader get to be privy to, especially reading your letters. In trying to sum up the book and tie in the inner-child work to abolition and carcerality, what I came up with is:
Carceral logic is so pervasive that abolition goes beyond the dismantling of brick-and-mortar prisons and institutions that enact harm, and deep into the psyche, which becomes a site of reproducing carceral logic until we consciously unlearn to. Liberation, then, is inner work as much as it's outer work: finding the true self that lives underneath misafropedia and beyond the confines of binary thinking. The inner child represented in the therapy narrative, the left hand that you were made not to use as a child: it's in those reclamations.
Would you agree with that?
HZ: I love that description. I'm like, oh wow, I'm gonna have to steal that. [laughs]
"I wanted to show the process of that, and what better way to do it than to actually put those moments where I'm trying to interact with my inner child on the page?"
Sometimes I still find myself trying to wrap it up in a bow for my elevator pitch, 'cause it's so much. But yeah, that covers a lot. I love that you bring it back to meditation and the feeling of it being meditative, because so much of the book was done when I [was] re-exploring my spirituality, and that included a lot of meditative practices. I don't get into that as much as I do the therapy, but it was very much hand-in-hand with me relearning what meditation was, building my altar, getting in touch with my grandmother, and it really was just so much inner work that had to be done. I think that's the harder part of abolition: that healing work. I wanted to show the process of that, and what better way to do it than to actually put those moments where I'm trying to interact with my inner child on the page? Those moments were added in much later, as I was struggling with how to actually express what this is like. And I'm like "Oh, I can just put that on the page." And I think that really brought the book together.
PS: That reminds me of a quote from Indya Moore, who said something along the lines of: "My ancestors loved me. And I am my ancestors' dreams." And it became a part of how they understand themselves, it seemed. Having that open channel is a beautiful thing.
HZ: Yeah, and that's hard, too. There's so much trauma in our family. Even with my grandmother, there are a lot of horrible memories. And despite all of that, to know that there is love there, and to try to access that, is really powerful. And that's something that you can do, I think, regardless of the traumatic experiences that you go through. I can't speak for everyone, and their ancestors, and their families, [but] I think for the most part, underneath the more difficult experiences that we had in our family — families that are trying to survive in a really difficult world, in the case of my parents and my grandparents in particular — there is always this love. One of the things that I never questioned is that my mother loved me, despite all of the horrible things that we went through. And the ancestor work, and what I'm trying to do in this book, is a way to access that without disregarding the fact that the harms existed and that they need to be accounted for, but centering that love within the process of trying to find accountability and healing.
PS: I think that's something we encounter in the practice of restorative justice and breaking those binaries. In the book, it feels like there is a common thread in the story of Roberto — the boy you knew as this hulking villain from your childhood that, looking back, you realize is just this symbolic projection of aggression, of a different kind of poor, of a different kind of Black, that you see reproduced all the time — that we all do. Breaking the binary between good kids and bad kids, the haves and have-nots; separating people from their trauma; separating the person from their mental illness, in the case of Mother Bhumi. Recognizing that it's so rare in life that things are ever black and white.
"OK, how did this show up in my life, how is this still showing up in my life in how I talk about myself, and my work, and my gender?"
HZ: Right, and there's so much of that we have to do for ourselves, right? Like, with Roberto, one of the reasons that it's earlier in the book is because even though that's hard work to try and figure out how you're using binaries and using that in your interactions with other people, I think one of the more difficult things is figuring out how you start to constrict your own life in that way. And so, being able to move from Roberto to, "OK, how did this show up in my life, how is this still showing up in my life in how I talk about myself, and my work, and my gender?" is an important job. Or, at least, I think it is. But that was really hard for the book to do and really hard for me to do as well.
PS: I want to ask about optics versus impact. On page 121, you write: "For visibility to effectively improve the plight for marginalized people, empathy must be evoked, and this world is specifically designed not to empathize with Black people," not to mention the "harm that can accompany visibility" that you detail on page 113. That's why, you write on page 124: "The work is not in trying to transform the carceral gaze: it's in trying to destroy it." My note there was just "wow" written underneath: that's a fantastic sentence.
Could you speak to the limitations of visibility? I think in our political moment, there is a lot of neoliberal excitement over Biden's appointments; around Kamala Harris; around the commitment to Harriet Tubman $20 bills before $2,000 checks have been dispersed, or $1,400 checks. I feel like that has a place in this conversation.
HZ: Definitely, and those are all things that I'm thinking about when I'm writing about this. I mean, this has been a conversation that's been ongoing. What I didn't want to do is to completely disregard the power of being seen: that's not what I'm saying in that. What I wanted to highlight is that, like anything else, it's not always just one thing. There can be harm in that as well. And often, I think, with the liberal narrative of representation, we're only talking about the supposedly universal benefit that comes from being seen.
That's just not something I experienced in my life: it's not something that I knew. Even from the perspective of being a Hare Krishna who was homeschooled, I wasn't really thinking about representation in that way, and I don't think that I was worse off for it. And so I'm thinking about the work that is raised because we only value things on specific platforms; the people who are raised [who] don't necessarily want to be platformed that way; and thinking about what could happen, for Black folks in particular. But I think this is something that all movements can ask themselves: if I'm valuing this conversation, what other power can we find outside of just being on the bill?
HZ: That's something I think is really important for us as we keep going forward, especially talking about surveillance and the ways that everything is being watched and deconstructed by the state when movements start to be more radical. What does that mean for conversations around representation? Those are the questions that I wanted to ask, and I don't think that they've been asked enough, although they definitely have been asked. Some of the people that I quote in that section — particularly [Saidiya] Hartman, she does a lot of writing around representation and empathy in particular that I found rang true to me — that's what I wanted to push forward, particularly around conversations of queerness. We're talking in terms of Black representation a lot more now, but when I was writing the book in particular, there's also queer representation that we have to take into account. How does that shift when people are both Black and queer?
It's something that was really important for me to get in, especially as I was working around the [Bayna-Lehkiem] El-Amin case and seeing how different people [have] their stories told in totally different ways: even if you have the same camera, the same journalist, the same platforms that you're telling those stories on.
PS: I was reading some of the early reviews that you shared on Instagram, and it's funny, because someone had said that the tone was seething, is that the word? Or angry, or any of those qualifiers that are always coded anyway . . .
PS: I thought that was a funny misrepresentation, because to understand how systems of power work, and how pervasive they are, and to work still toward liberation, is hopeful to me more than anything.
"This isn't the only world that there is. This isn't the only world that ever was. And we have power to create something else."
HZ: Yeah! I mention Hartman, and there are other people that I quoted in the book that are related to the field of Afropessimism. I don't know if you're familiar, but that's something that comes up a lot in discussion around the theory, which is basically that . . . we're still within a world that is shaped by slavery: any progress that is made is still within the system, and there's no hope for us within this world. Which sounds hopeless. I mean, the name is Afropessimism: it sounds hopeless. But really, what is at the core of this idea is that despite all of this, there are other worlds possible. Which is, like you said, the most hopeful thing. Even if the whole world is against us, to know that we can shape new worlds is beautiful, and I always find it really funny when folks can't move past the initial part of this particular world, this reality is hopeless. And acknowledge the second part of the argument. This isn't the only world that there is. This isn't the only world that ever was. And we have power to create something else.
PS: Absolutely. In that, and I think it's something you touch on in the book, a police state is not an inevitability: none of this is intrinsic. It's just the way things are now.
HZ: Right, right.
PS: Community, family life, support; challenging the limits of relationships, friendships. This book charts so many topics.
HZ: Yeah, and I'm glad that it holds space for all of those topics. One of my fears is that maybe it was too many topics, but one of the things that I wanted to do from the beginning with this book is show how abolition and this work shows up in everything. And so, there are so many different topics, but it all comes back to the work that we're doing to get free, that you completely wrapped up in the healing work that we need to do within ourselves and the work we need to do in community with each other: that, all to me, is a form of abolition.
PS: That's beautiful, and I think that ties into something else. A lot of folks are finally starting to have conversations about what abolition means — by people, I mean white people — for the first time, but I think it is still an abstraction to a lot of people. But, to understand that abolition is so many things: it's community, it's love, it's family, it's looking out for your neighbor. It's restorative. It's in all of those things. And to underline that abolition is not divorced from history or by any means new. You can have a narrative where the thread is abolition, and the thread is also love: that's really what it comes down to.
"I believe that if I walk down the street, every person there has a capability to be my loving neighbor. And so, what work am I doing toward that?"
HZ: Right, because at the root of it, it is the belief that the people around you, if given access to heal and care and support, aren't going to be mindless monsters who you have to always have an armed force on standby to take care of. That's love. I believe that if I walk down the street, every person there has a capability to be my loving neighbor. And so, what work am I doing toward that? And how does this concept of police prevent that from happening? And that's something you have to wrestle with differently in every situation, but hopefully it's something that after reading this book, people will be able to apply to their lives more regularly. Because it's in how you walk past someone who's houseless on the street; it's in, like you said, your relationships with your neighbors. It's in all of that.
PS: I read your piece "The Stories and Lies of Jess Krug" in Vanity Fair, which was fantastic, and I'm wondering, where does that piece live in the canon of this book? Because I feel like there's writing about relationships, like with your friend Cloud, that I drew parallels to as a reader.
HZ: Mmm. That's funny, I didn't really think of it too much in relation to my relationship with Cloud. But, where I see the connections there is [in] this idea that Jessica Krug was very — she was an abolitionist, she wrote really great articles about abolition — but where we always had this tension is [that] she did not take that next step into her personal life. And so, she would react out of what to me felt like punitive desire to hurt someone, and that was in how she attacked anyone who wasn't radical enough, but also in the way she tried to discourage me from doing things that were healthy for me: going to therapy.
She was able to tie this idea of abolition and "this world isn't for us" into something that prevented us from finding things in this world that help us get to that place, and she was very successful in doing that. But I'd love to hear more about what you saw as the parallels between that story and my relationship with Cloud, and I'd be happy to speak to that.
PS: My takeaway was thinking about the entitlement that I think white people can have to people of color, period, but also in relationships with Black people especially. To time, to make space that they aren't reciprocating to the same degree, to ask that considerations are made for you that aren't given both ways: there are just so many double standards and hypocrisies that can arise. And I think that's where I saw the parallel there.
PS: Understanding that there is a visceral trauma attached to certain behaviors, wanting to extricate yourself from those [harmful] situations is, of course, completely reasonable.
HZ: Yes! Yes, for sure. It's funny because I actually had Jess read that chapter, because in that same chapter I'm talking about Puerto Rico, and she is supposedly from Puerto Rico. [laughs] But I allowed her to read that chapter, and one of the things that she found fault with is this idea of boundaries.
HZ: I was talking about boundaries: I need to have very specific boundaries in my relationships with white people that might look different from my relationships within my community. And she was like, "Oh, I think the language of boundaries is, like, kind of imperial," and all of this other bullsh*t. But at the time I wasn't able to make that tie that I make in the article. I think her frustration with ideas like boundaries, or her frustration with the idea of therapy, was also about her not having access to Blackness and Black people's lives in ways that would be unhealthy. So if we can determine what's healthy for us, she obviously wouldn't be a part of it. And so she was doing all that she could to cast doubt on that idea: that being able to determine what's healthy for you is, in fact, healthy.
I think there are going to be a lot of people who struggle with that chapter for that reason: "Oh, you're saying that you get to have a specific boundary with your white friends?"
But yeah, I do think that's a very common thing with a lot of my relationships with white folks at least, and it definitely showed up in my relationship with Cloud a lot early on in our friendship, and I think it's just because we're not taught that Black people can have boundaries. I think there are going to be a lot of people who struggle with that chapter for that reason: "Oh, you're saying that you get to have a specific boundary with your white friends?" I mean, this even came up a lot in the editing process. But yeah, it's going to sound wild to people because we don't acknowledge how much harm that does, for one, and we don't acknowledge that there's another possible way of engaging with people that can still be very loving and caring. I think my relationship with Cloud now is very loving and caring, but it also looks very different.
PS: There's an irony there, right? To expect that only your relationships can be boundless while infringing on others' boundaries sounds colonial to me. It's like the manifest destiny of friendship.
"I think a lot of times, people are afraid of the concept of Black people having power to shape their communities and societies because they could very easily do the same things that were done to them."
HZ: [laughs] Exactly. It's funny because I can see a lot of Jess more clearly now than I could, but so much of that is because the boundaries that white folks have made in their relationships have been rooted in harm. And it's the same concept as reverse racism: I think a lot of times, people are afraid of the concept of Black people having power to shape their communities and societies because they could very easily do the same things that were done to them. And I'm not gonna put a judgement on whether that's good or bad, but I think that fear is very real for white people.
PS: I do too, and I'll leave it at that. [laughs]
From Little A Books, Black Boy Out of Time ($15 hardcover, $11 paperback) is out now.