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Dr. Lester K. Spence

Frankie Knuckles RIP

I mentioned a few days ago that we lost Frankie Knuckles last week at the relatively young age of 59. Frankie Knuckles was to house music as Afrika Bambaata was to hip-hop. I’m in the process of writing a piece thinking about Frankie Knuckles in tandem with sociologist Stuart Hall and theorist Richard Iton for Contemporary Political Theory. A great deal’s been written about black politics and hip-hop, but little to nothing about black politics and house. I’m obviously guilty of it myself. But this gap is a pretty large one as house music’s done more than any other musical genre to provide a space for what could be called a thick blackness. 

There’s a slight romantic theme present in the interviews above. Placing that aside for a second though what I hear is a discussion about the political economy of music. We lose something when we move from a moment where it took a number of people to produce a record (at the very least we lose jobs) to a moment where it only takes one (plus a vocalist if the record required one). What I also hear is a discussion about creativity and tradition–in the first interview Knuckles talks about hearing a variety of different sounds that kind of percolate until they make their way “onto the page”, and then in the second interview he talks about having a distinctive sound that he didn’t even know he had until he heard his own catalog.

I had the opportunity to talk about Frankie Knuckles and about house music on Marc Steiner with Neal Conway.

And I created a mix, which I include below. Hopefully we’ll have a longer feature on Marc Steiner about house music in the future. I owe more to it than words or a single mix can possibly describe.

RIP by Lester Spence on Mixcloud


And one more for the road

House Call by Lester Spence on Mixcloud



On Anxiety and Politics

A group of Hopkins students and administrators have gotten together to raise awareness about mental health.The result is Hopkins Speaks Up, a campaign that seeks to reduce the stigma attached to mental health. I participated. A few years ago the National Institute of Mental Health conducted a survey of college students and found that over 30% of them were so depressed they couldn’t effectively function during the previous year.

I’m glad they asked me. But people should understand that anxiety and depression in general are not simply mental health issues, they are also politically produced. Indeed some argue that the dominant reactive affect to the contemporary condition is anxiety.

Excessive anxiety and stress are a public secret. When discussed at all, they are understood as individual psychological problems, often blamed on faulty thought patterns or poor adaptation.

Indeed, the dominant public narrative suggests that we need more stress, so as to keep us “safe” (through securitisation) and “competitive” (through performance management). Each moral panic, each new crackdown or new round of repressive laws, adds to the cumulative weight of anxiety and stress arising from general over-regulation. Real, human insecurity is channelled into fuelling securitisation. This is a vicious circle, because securitisation increases the very conditions (disposability, surveillance, intensive regulation) which cause the initial anxiety. In effect, the security of the Homeland is used as a vicarious substitute for security of the Self. Again, this has precedents: the use of national greatness as vicarious compensation for misery, and the use of global war as a channel for frustration arising from boredom.

Anxiety is also channelled downwards. People’s lack of control over their lives leads to an obsessive struggle to reclaim control by micro-managing whatever one can control. Parental management techniques, for example, are advertised as ways to reduce parents’ anxiety by providing a definite script they can follow. On a wider, social level, latent anxieties arising from precarity fuel obsessive projects of social regulation and social control. This latent anxiety is increasingly projected onto minorities.

More here.

We should continue to create the space needed for individuals to deal with depression and anxiety. Part of that work though has to be political. This isn’t something I expect Hopkins to do. This is, however, something I believe students, faculty, and some administrators can do.


In my twenties after I’d attended enough weddings to pay for my tuxedo I realized that the next few decades of my life would go something like this. Attending weddings, celebrating childbirths, commiserating divorces, attending funerals, then repeat.

I’ve lost seven friends and colleagues since January 2013, with the last two coming this past March. Add in a few seminal diasporal figures I didn’t know personally (writer Chinua Achebe, boxer Ken Norton, musician George Duke, actor Jim Kelly, sociologist Stuart Hall, DJ Frankie Knuckles) and it’s clear I’m deep in this latter stage. I knew it was coming. I predicted it.

Still, I wasn’t prepared.

Over the past couple of weeks writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait have been “debating” Obama’s tendency to speak down to black audiences. Coates first asked why liberal writers tripped on Paul Ryan when Obama used nearly the same argument. Chait then responded by suggesting that Obama’s call for blacks to be more responsible was reasonable, that Obama’s arguments are very very different from Ryan’s, and that contemporary black poverty can be partially explained by culture. Coates rebuts by suggesting black culture is not independent of white supremacy. Chait responds finding Coates’ new pessimism deeply troubling. Coates notes in turn that this “new pessimism” is based on a realistic understanding of American history. Chait responds by suggesting Coates’ misread him.

Here’s Melissa Harris-Perry giving a better overview and interviewing Coates about the argument.


I believe Coates’ general argument–that we cannot talk about culture without acknowledging the functional work it performs, we cannot talk about culture without thinking through the political ideas, institutions, and interests that shape it, and we cannot deal with American life and achievement without wrestling with the realities of white supremacy–is correct. More particularly, the most important thing we can study and understand in examining in poverty is NOT culture but are the structures that produce poverty in the first place. In one of this first pieces, Chait cites Reconsidering Culture and Poverty by Small, Harding, and Lamont, using their review to suggest there’s evidence that culture contributes to poverty:

For instance, via Jamelle Bouiethis paper surveys some of the best research evidence of the detrimental cultural outgrowths of concentrated urban poverty on parental expectations, sexual behavior, the willingness of students to engage in beneficial activities, and other things. Culture is hard, though not impossible, to quantify, which does not mean it doesn’t exist.

There’s enough evidence of upward mobility, of people moving out of poverty, to suggest culture might be doing at least SOME work. However the authors themselves say “ultimately the greatest barrier to middle-class status among the poor is sustained material deprivation itself” (p. 9). There is no empirical evidence to suggest that culture plays a measurable role in producing or reproducing poverty in America. Chait’s ideas about America, about culture, about politics, are par for the course amongst American liberals black, white, Latino, Asian American, and Native American.

I’m not doing the debate justice. It’s worth reading, and in fact worth teaching. And it’s spawned a number of responses that are insightful in and of themselves. Tressie MC uses the debate to critique white progressivism. Ross Douthat presents a thoughtful conservative response. Mychal Denzel Smith uses it to examine functional black rage. But I was particularly interested in Andrew Sullivan’s response, a compilation of reader comments. This particular comment struck me (and Coates as well):

The TNC of 2010 who wrote that great piece seemed like the kind of guy his father was. Tough. Strict with his kids. And all because he knew the world out there really is wicked and unfair, but that ultimately you can make it if you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Anyone can rise above it and find their way to a decent life.

I’m now left wondering if that TNC still exists.  Does he tell his son to just quit or move to some other country because there is no hope for the U.S.?  I would ask him myself, but he does not post his email address, he stopped using Twitter, and the question would surely get deleted by a moderator if I posted it in his comments section.  Sad.  I hope he comes out of this funk because I do think he’s an outstanding writer who has a lot of good things to say.

If you were to ask a range of people who’ve known me in my adult life, to share one piece of information about me that gives them some insight into who I am they’d likely mention my Detroit roots. But technically, I didn’t grow up in Detroit. I grew up in Inkster, a poor predominantly black suburb of Detroit. Even though I moved away from Inkster in 1984 I continued to come back right up until my best friend was murdered in 2001, not two weeks after the attacks on 9/11. After that I stopped.

Until facebook opened up to the public. It took a few years, but the next thing I know I’m connected with folk I’ve known since kindergarten and before. One of them stood out. She, like me, was shy and quiet throughout grade school, and like me didn’t really begin to come into herself until high school. Because she wasn’t deeply connected to any of the high school cliques–she wasn’t an athlete, she wasn’t a prep, she wasn’t a gangster, she wasn’t one of the beautiful ones–she became the most important person in the network.

She died in a car crash, having fallen asleep at the wheel.

When the anonymous commenter wonders about Ta-Nehisi’s funk, about the pessimistic viewpoint that white supremacy is permanent he does so ignorant of American history and our contemporary condition.

My friend was one of the working poor. She had two jobs and was pretty much on a double time grind making ends meet. I had the opportunity to speak at her funeral. I tried to do her justice, but the one thing I didn’t say and couldn’t say given the venue (and our contemporary condition), was that her death was in effect caused by a political system that increasingly forces us to grind and hustle and punishes us for not being able to do so.

She didn’t carry herself as if this were a burden. If you’d talked to her you wouldn’t have known she had two jobs. She lived every day as if it was that last day and in doing so fully embodied her name (which meant “life”). Knowing that her odds of being lifted up out of her condition was about as likely as winning the Lotto. Knowing  she’d be working those two jobs until she couldn’t work anymore. Every day my friend made a choice to live, to love, to work, only to sleep, rinse, and repeat.

We all die. Every single one of us. That knowledge doesn’t stop us from living. It doesn’t stop us from laughing. It doesn’t stop us from trying to produce, from trying to create a better world for ourselves and our progeny. In fact, for many of us that knowledge fuels our work, it CAUSES it to laugh. CAUSES us to produce. CAUSES us to try to create a better world. The tragic in this way inspires us. When the anonymous writer asks whether Ta-Nehisi tells his son to quit, he does so ignorant of the fundamental role tragedy plays not just in black life but in ALL of our lives. Every single relationship I have from this day forward is going to end in tragedy at best, with one of us saying a final goodbye to the other. Why continue?

Because this is life.

White supremacy is not inspirational. It literally aspires to nothing. But the fight against white supremacy? For those of us approaching middle age looking at our children on one side and the abyss on the other? I couldn’t think of any battle more heroic and more worth fighting. Eyes wide open.










1 comment

Over at The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith notes he both appreciates and is troubled by My Brother’s Keeper. Brittney Cooper echoes Smith’s primary concern that the policy is both too exclusive (ignoring women) and too respectable. If this were 1995 and we were talking about the Million Man March, I’d be prone to agree.

But as it stands I strongly disagree with both articles.

Bringing up the rear to save the day is a long interview between Thomas Frank and Adolph Reed over Reed’s recent Harper article (firewalled, sorry). Here’s the money quote for me:

That’s key: political economy. And you use the word “egalitarian.” That’s sort of what’s completely missing today. All of these victories on these other fronts, largely matters of identity politics, and where is the egalitarian left?

Right, and my friend Walter Michaels has made this point very eloquently over and over again . . .  that the problem with a notion of equality or social justice that’s rooted in the perspectives of multiculturalism and diversity is that from those perspectives you can have a society that’s perfectly just if less than 1 percent of the population controls 95 percent of the stuff, so long as that one percent is half women and 12 percent black, and 12 percent Latino and whatever the appropriate numbers are gay. Now that’s a problem.

In this case, both Smith and Cooper are arguing that if My Brother’s Keeper removed the respectability politics (not sure how that’d happen) and was more inclusive along both racial and gender dimensions (spending more resources on the specific issues girls and women face as well as the specific issues Asian American and Native American populations face)…it’d be ok.

When we remove political economy from the equation, and a belief that government not only can but SHOULD be used to aggressively redistribute resources, this is what we’re left with. My Brother’s Keeper is deeply flawed not because it’s insufficiently representative.

And the neoliberal turn continues apace.

As an aside Steven Sherman wrote a critique of Reed’s article that’s worth reading…not so much for the critique but for his historical analysis.