Written By Myles E. Johnson
My favorite part of preparing Kool-Aid as a child was watching the sugar dissolve. I would fill the pitcher with water, not quite to the rim. I would rip the packet open and pour my preferred flavor into the water. Then, I would add the sugar. The sugar was the most important step to ensure the drink was refreshing and sweet, not strong and bitter. In childhood, I had a few moments where I experienced Kool-Aid with not enough sugar or no sugar at all. The taste was bitter and strong. My young mind would ask when, “Is this what Kool-Aid really is? This bitter and disgusting liquid only made edible by copious amounts of sugar?” Not the most sophisticated thought, but strong enough to haunt my adolescent self. I started to wonder was I finding delight in the actual powder that I was unleashing into the water called Kool-Aid or was I just simply just a slave to sugar?
When reflecting on preparing this sugary concoction, I never thought if this was specific to my blackness or just a childhood memory probably shared by many children that enjoyed sugar and beverages. Yet still, I enjoy the memory of watching the sugar dissolve into sweet abyss.
This childhood memory was came to mind when I read that there was outrage amongst some New York University students over soul food dishes served in honor of Black History Month. The dishes served were collard greens, yams, cornbread, watermelon water, and, the most racialized beverage this side of The Middle Passage, Kool-Aid. Because of a viral video, the momentum behind the outrage picked up and many employees were promptly fired. This is the result of the protest and resistance brought by the NYU students. This skewed version of what protest is and should look like returned me to my childhood memories of preparing Kool-Aid and the sugar that would disappear with just a few stirs of a wooden spoon.
Political ideologies remind me of this sugar; quickly folding into the elements that surround it, being diluted and used to punch up the flavor of the whole. I find myself increasingly concerned when events under the guise of protest or resistance happen at places like NYU when I believe what is actually happening is the performance of protest, but no real wish to push against domination culture.
The idea is the writer’s most sacred currency and ideas have been, and continue to be, declawed to be in the service of a less threatening, more capitalist-friendly version of itself. This is the horror of the left. If one were to research the public’s first reaction to Feminism, we’d find that it was largely hated by the right and many people who might identify themselves as politically liberal. If we examined the birth of pro-black movements and figures, we’d see the movement and the leaders were unpopular during the conception. Even in LGBT movements and the first public displays of queerness, these ideas and identities were resisted and hated.
Now, in 2018, it seems like these things have not just been tolerated and embraced by the public, but used for capitalist interest. Feminism has been sold on t-shirts for profit and now it is a thing most pop stars want to be affiliated with. When megastars like Taylor Swift are using the label ‘feminist’ yet failing to resist the current president’s patriarchal behavior publicly, it would seem the word feminism is being used for another reason besides the political ideas and beliefs it was founded upon. Pro-blackness ideas and imagery have been adopted by Hollywood productions and popular, mainstream publications. When Marvel uses revolutionary, pro-black poet Gil-Scott Heron’s work in order to create this faux-revolutionary narrative about the consumption of “Black Panther” and that it is somehow radical to be affiliated with this commercial project, I begin to be concerned. When GQ magazine fashions Michael B. Jordan’s fashion spread to be styled in the vein of The Black Panther party to sell magazines and a group, I begin to be concerned. The Black Panther Party was a black, revolutionary anti-capitalist movement and to recreate their aesthetic in order to sell magazines and films seems to also take out the venom in The Black Panther Party’s actual political mission. I begin to wonder if Queerness is a branding technique to reinvigorate careers and platforms. I witnessed over the years countless companies like Doritos and celebrities like the rapper Khia (ex-host of popular internet show, “Queen’s Court”) align themselves with queerness simply in order to expand their audience and further profit, with no actual commitment to the projects queer people need assistance in for justice and equity.
These observations are not new. Mao Tse-tung wrote extensively about the limits of neoliberalism or a type of liberal political ideology that does not divorce itself from capitalism and often wishes to sustain normalcy at the risk of allowing domination.
These newer examples are just the latest iteration of these old concerns; the concern that domination will constantly take ideas, movements, and even people created by the Left and figure out how to make it a marketing tool, divorcing it from the transgressive political movement it was meant to be. This is how the sum of pro-blackness, feminism, and queerness can be reduced to hollow representation. The problem is now if it is or is not in a Hollywood production. I would prefer communities thinking of how to affirm and create in ways that are not dictated by those invested in white supremacist capitalism having interest. And even further, instead of thinking of the more dire circumstances black people find themselves in that include mass incarceration, healthcare, and homelessness.
The genius in domination is in its relentlessness to use anything to assist in its perpetuation. Once an idea that threatens social and political normalcy appears, it eventually is declawed and used for something shallow and non-threatening. Feminism once used to declare an individual’s belief and commitment to global gender equality is now used by starlets to appear edgier while still assisting in the global domination and exploitation of people.
If you study Aramark, the company responsible for The Black History Month food served at NYU aforementioned, you will find that company has been boycotted for its abuse of prisoners, sexual harassment, and drug-trafficking. Because of the co-opting of language like “protest and resistance” to mean something that does not disrupt or fight against domination, but being able to have more people be apart of the grander project of domination in the name of inclusion and diversity, these words and ideas lose their fangs and danger to dominating forces. Having two people fired for a menu is now “protest” and the sum of “resistance” instead of the dismantling of corporations and systems that systemically annihilate marginalized people.
The work of people interested in an undiluted version of justice should practice critical awareness when going public with ideas, movements, and people that are interested in radicalism. This awareness must be just as relentless as the domination that stirs the wooden spoon in hopes to dissolve transgressive ideas, movements, and people into the grand scheme of oppression. People aware of this practice should not just be concerned about not drinking the Kool-Aid, but ensuring they are not slowly but surely becoming a part of the recipe that poisons the lives of so many.
(Cover Photo: Ron Shirley II)
Myles E. Johnson is a black, queer writer and editor existing at the nexus of race, sexual identity, gender, feminism, and justice through content creation and cultural critique.