Emergencies make periods. Not just in what one perceives to be individual consciousness, when the subject in emergency clings to the before and after of seemingly incommensurate realties, when the before comes to don a golden sheen, and when the after is marked by either the everyday memories of what one has lost or the frightening incapacity to make sense of all one has lost, and, also, by the constant adjustments one makes to habituate oneself toward survival in the midst of bombardments, casings, body bags in public squares, daily body counts, curfews and sirens, choking ash, even fireworks. Emergencies also drop periods into public narratives, as those who tell the stories of a glorious before and a ruinous after journalists, selfie-posters, historians, literature people explain the shift through recourse to comparisons that are feeble attempts to comprehend the scale of catastrophe.

Nineteen years ago we witnessed such a periodizing interruption, with the "mother of all events," as Baudrillard had it, serving as a marker of time and collective trauma.1 George W. Bush, speaking of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon: "and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack." 2 Donald Trump speaking of the outbreak of 2019's SARS-COV-2 as an "attack" by China: "This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center."3 Dominant periodizations are a cloak for imperial warfare and suicidal isolationism. They mystify racial formations: they occlude historical specificity, and, in particular, efface the adaptations of racial power and its global articulations, whether in the hasty collapse of Islamophobia and antiblackness (Arab is the new Black) or in the occlusion of Arab antiblackness in the rush to solidarity.

These moves to emblematize emergency also reproduce the idea of a national literature based in white innocence and white, usually male, genius. In the surveys of "9/11 literature" that have been published since 2001, many critics have grappled with the way American writers like Don DeLillo and Jonathan Safran Foer represent the rupture of 9/11.  "Then everything changed," writes Richard Gray in After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11. "On September 11, 2001, as the media did not fail to point out over and over again, America came under attack. It was at least, according to the national sense of things invaded. The homeland was no longer secure, and, to that extent, no longer home." 4 Such a perspective necessarily renders the catastrophe of 9/11 as a dystopian crisis for white masculinity, authorizing the idealistic vision of "homeland" that justified the invasions, wars, sanctions, and occupation in Iraq and actively forgetting that the US and its allies had been visiting this dystopian crisis upon Black and other oppressed populations throughout the Global South for 500 years. (It also begs important questions about the active silences that are constitutive of a categorization that could leave even the most celebrated Black authors Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, Michael Thomas out of its roll call of 9/11 or "post-9/11" writers, but better representation is not my aim here).

While 9/11 served as a point of crisis for national manhood and, therefore, a point of intensity for literary canonization, studies of empire after the September 11 attacks and the declaration of war on terror that followed have revealed the violence subtending national fantasies and practices of security and the many theoretical, artistic, and poetic experiments with alternative forms of security and protection. Still, as much as studies of empire have taught us about the practices of empire-building structural adjustment, NGOization, support for dictatorships and puppet governments, war and occupation, support for Israeli settler-colonialism and about the way cultural objects build consent among subjects of an empire that never projects itself as such, they have had relatively little to say about Black feminine gender as the highest symbol for the continual recalibration of imperial power and its structuring ideologies of protection. What does the Black woman do for this culture of empire?

Artists throughout the Global South have approached 9/11 in ways that disrupt the US exceptionalism undergirding the claims that the event should legitimize the imperial program of securitizing the world for capitalist development. I grapple with what that means for those of us who study post-1945 culture first, with an understanding of the Global South that foregrounds the US South and Caribbean as important sites in the global imaginaries of Western dominance and Global South liberation and second, with the conviction that when we privilege Black feminist cultural workers' analyses and figurations of the present, we refuse periodizing claims that bolster hegemonic understandings of protectable life and we generate new terms for the study of American empire. Jarvis McInnis uses the term "global black south" to refer to the hemispheric "subregion" of the global south that stretches from the US South to the Caribbean and the Caribbean coast of Latin America; this different geography of the south allows us to "foreground the cultural and political contributions of southern African Americans within black transnational and diaspora studies."5 If the global Black South names a region in which Black transnational cultural production mediates the Black social life that is always vulnerable to "racial capitalism's insidious and protean capacity to coopt the very scripts of liberal subjecthood," as McInnis suggests, it serves as a site for thinking about the larger work of Blackness, and Black cultural production, in the long project of US imperialism.

We could take, for one example, global Black south writer Toni Cade Bambara, who calls the heterogeneous assembly of Black radicals who crowd around the protagonist of the 1980 The Salt Eaters "veterans of the incessant war."6 They are pan-Africanists and communists and trade unionists who lack the luxury of literary critics' stubborn preference for discrete periods, who have known antiblackness in its myriad manifestations (they shudder when "remembering night riders and day traitors and the cocking of guns") but who have also known the many shapes liberation takes.

Michelle Ann Stephens uses the term "shadow narratives" to discuss the ways that Black American writers like Audre Lorde occupied the category of stranger to report on the way the US used the Caribbean as a "staging ground for wartime initiatives that now characterize the United States's foreign interventions in the 'war on terrorism.'" It is Caribbean women of color, Stephens suggests, who "may have the clearest eye on the United States's role in the world at large."7 If we study the shadow narratives emerging from Black feminist writers' work throughout the global Black south Bambara's massive research project on the murders in Atlanta in 1980-81, posthumously published as Those Bones Are Not My Child by Toni Morrison, Lorde's 1983 essay about the US invasion of Grenada, June Jordan's trenchant essay on the contra war in Nicaragua the map of the US's "war on terror" pinpoints the various fronts of Reagan's war on radicalism in the 1980s, years during which counterterrorism and securitization served as a cover for the expansion of the neoliberal economic and political policies that have been the modality of late US empire. But if we attend, too, to the Black feminist writers who figured the domestic regime of law and order as the very laboratory of experimentation with invasion and torture that Stephens writes of when she refers to Grenada as a staging ground, that same map covers the neocolonial terrain of the 1970s as well.

As Black feminist scholarship and activism have shown, state terror's long durée extended into the current epoch the historic uses of Black women's flesh to imagine, experiment with, and ultimately prove the extent to which US law and policy could codify and glorify, even beautify, the gory avarice of capital. In her foundational work, Angela Davis writes of the brutal counterinsurgency aimed at defanging the radicalism of the Black woman, "the custodian of the house of resistance," during slavery.8 These "terrorist methods" included burnings, hangings, executions on the wheel, and parading heads on poles.9 For Saidiya Hartman, antiblack terror during the antebellum period rested as much on these spectacular displays of "the shocking and the terrible" as they did on the recognition of the slave's humanity, and "reciprocity and recreation obscure[d] the quotidian routine of violence."10 Both forms of terror spectacular and diffuse continued to take shape after what Hartman calls the "nonevent" of emancipation.11 As Sarah Haley witnesses in her pioneering work on punishment in Georgia, for example, "Black women were caught in a violent abyss" of the early twentieth-century southern penal regime, which made Black female otherness a material resource to be plundered in the economic and cultural transition from plantation to industry.12 Gendered racial terror, to use Haley's term, provided the grammar through which threat and punishment could be imagined throughout American modernity.

Not only did Black women's unprotectability and hyperimprisonability smooth the transition to the industrial economy and make modern "progress" possible; Black women also served as scapegoats when that economy was in decline at the other end of the century, when any pretensions that it might be put to work in service of social welfare became woefully untenable. Black women captives on the home front on the plantation, on the chain gain, in the prison yard or solitary cell, in the car, in the front-yard garden, at the airport, on the sidewalk served as test cases for the techniques of surveillance and torture in that would be exported after 2001, during the "high" war on terror.13 "Ultimately," Andrea Ritchie writes, "whether a woman of color is read as a drug user, courier, distributor, a disorderly person, an undesirable immigrant, a security threat, or some combination of these, the war on drugs, broken windows and gang policing, immigration enforcement, and the war on terror weave a web of criminalization that ensnares women in devastating ways."14

Nineteen years after 9/11, a mob of Arapahoe County enforcers stalked five Black women and girls as they returned to their family car after getting their nails done. The police detained the driver in a patrol car and, meanwhile, forced the four youngest members of the party one as young as six to lay on the asphalt parking lot at gunpoint until they realized that they had mistaken the family's SUV license plate for that of a stolen motorcycle. Aurora, Colorado reached a high of 88 degrees that day. Asphalt can be up to 60 degrees hotter than the temperature of the surrounding air. Is not antiblack torture the national pastime that has romped through 30 or more generations without need of a memo? Can it be denied that Black gender remains the ultimate object of state and extrajudicial law and order?

And nineteen years after 9/11, we can say definitively that the rupture it seemed to be at the moment was a catalyst accelerating a shift, already underway, from one racial regime to another: not a wholesale break with a previous order but a moment of crisis followed by a resettling and further crisis. The September 11 attacks hastened the construction of the law, the policy, and the collective affective scaffolding for the "counterterror state," a post-9/11 state formation that traded even the appearance of a "social commitment to building a prosperous collective future" for the unapologetic embrace of a long, unwinnable war for national security.15 The attacks were less a radical break than, in Nadine Naber's words, "an extension if not an intensification of a post-Cold War US expansion in the Middle East."16 It is crucial to point out that this extension and intensification in the laws, popular culture, and military maneuvers of the post-Cold War state depended on the figure of a Black gendered threat against which any notion of the prosperous, the collective, or the future has historically been articulated in the long history of US imperialism. I refer to 9/11 as a catalysis to capture the sense of a chemical agent accelerating a reaction that was already in motion. The official declaration of war against terror sped up the changes of the years immediately preceding the attacks, during which the US expanded the field of the neoliberal economy through rising militarism in the Arab world and the 1991 Iraq War sparked intense anti-Arab racism. It also expanded the repertoire of counterinsurgencies that the US state had amassed as its response to its "crisis of legitimacy" when, as Jordan Camp recounts, "freedom struggles gained more significant moral and ethical legitimacy than the forces of Jim Crow capitalism."17

Throughout the post-1968 decades, the culture of US empire returned obsessively to narratives of Black exceptionalism even as it posited racial Blackness as, still, the exceptional in the sense of unrivaled, in the sense of bigger-and-badder threat to order. As scholars of race after 9/11 argue, the War on Terror exported the technologies of surveillance and punishment historically aimed at Black people while importing the racialized figure of the Muslim enemy.18 The result was a transformation in the relationship between Black gender and US empire. While antiblack racism continued to link Blackness to criminality, domestic public culture also affirmed Blackness as a sign of enlightenment, with officials like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell announcing the nation's fitness as a world leader in multiracial democracy. This affirmation often rested on the cultivation of public personas that were in line with existing images of respectability, as Black officials and celebrities performed their own incorporability by conforming to gendered ideals of citizenship (with Rice, for example, embodying the virtues of a Black southern belle).

Crucially, the incorporation of Black representatives for US empire, not as every-once-in-a-while aberrations but as banal features of national life, also depended on a cast of new characters crafted from the raw material of existing racial gendered significations that loosened and stretched the boundaries of respectable behavior: the crisis manager, the fixer, the president, the CEO, the diversity officer, interracial lover and the mixed race child, the administrator, the golfer, the Mom-in-Chief, the talk show host.19 Films, television shows, and news stories completed this refashioning of racial gendered signification.

As much as culture provides the material for liberation, it also manufactures consent to domination. In the wake of the 1991 Iraq War, Edward Said credited media dominance at the dawn of the information revolution as the force of cultural imperialism that would allow for the "twinning of power and legitimacy," the joining of brute force to consent.20 Even anterior to the domination that might accrue through the manufacture and dissemination of the news is the media's capacity to represent "strange and threatening foreign cultures for the home audience, rarely with more success [than] in creating an appetite for hostility and violence against these cultural 'Others.'"21 If empire, as American studies scholars suggest, goes beyond economics to comprise a way of life, "not only for the 'foreign' subjects of domination but for the US citizens who benefit from it, who are subjugated to it, and who resist it," one of our tasks as students of power remains querying how international relations shape domestic cultural expression and how culture in turn enables US imperialism.22

Black women served as co-authors of a national script for imperial power, and Black feminist writers exposed the fictions of official protection with stories of sabotage, poison, endurance, and abolition. Black women's writing exposes Black women's intimacy with surveillance, policing, incarceration, and border security, where intimacy signifies a multiscalar, complex relation between military-industrial and personal-cultural forces. Take, for example, Gloria Naylor, who rose to literary fame after the 1982 publication of The Women of Brewster Place. Twelve years later Naylor sat paralyzed in her study, unable to write for fear that the computer she was writing on was being hacked, or that the room she was writing in was bugged, or that the voices she was hearing weren't coming from inside her own head but rather were being projected through her bedroom wall by a microwave sonic device. Instead of writing the ambitious fourth novel she had hoped to write, about the Senegalese captive who had been her muse for years, she wrote a "fictionalized memoir" about how the National Security Agency targeted her with a comprehensive program of surveillance and intelligence experimentation.

Take, for another example, the Black global south writer Nikki Finney, whose 2011 volume of poetry, Head Off & Split, surveyed the scene of post-9/11 America with mocking, ironic verse addressing, among other things, former president George W. Bush's pronouncement of a "mission accomplished" in Iraq, Condoleezza Rice's mastery of the concierto, and the abandonment of Black New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In "Concerto no. 12: Condoleezza Visits NYC {during hurricane season}," Finney tells the story of how Katrina exposed the vast gap between Black vulnerability and privilege from the perspective of the shoes that Rice was shopping for during the hurricane. "Back and forth we wondered what it must have been like just to float away in the gushing arms of the ultimate separation Left shoe stranded forever from Right," the shoes say. And when Rice walks into Ferragamo, the shoes expose their own vulnerability before Rice and her Secret Service agents: "They marched straight to the back of the store knocking us off our stands and poking their secret hands down our satiny private parts. From high in the stacks we watched her shoeless dillydally bringing up the rear." The shoes have just the right perspective to get an accurate view of the American state's capacity to put on the power of Blackness, and Blackness's capacity, in turn, to flaunt the power of the American state. Finney uses humor to expose the absurdity of it all. The left shoe says, "She was pretty gay about it all but didn't come near / divine, sequined me. I still got a / good look. I remember commenting, privately, / of course, to my Right, 'Beautiful toes for a secretary of state.'"

Take, for further examples: the memoir of Shoshana Johnson, an American soldier who was captured in Iraq in 2003; Danielle Evans's short story about a returning Iraq War vet who suffers from PTSD; and Alice Randall's story of a former civil rights activist who spends his days parsing definitions of torture in the Pentagon. While Black women like Condoleezza Rice served as co-authors of a national script for imperial power, Black feminists exposed the fictions of official protection that rationalize imperial power and wrote stories of sabotage, poison, endurance, and abolition. My goal is less to present us with a bipartite cast of bad subjects who are seduced by US empire and good subjects who resist it. It is instead to clarify the troubled intimacy between any notion of "Black women" and imperial culture and to draw this clarification in the trenchant terms of Black feminist organizing and literature (movements that had their own troubled intimacy).

If US empire-building throughout the decades preceding 9/11 and in the nineteen years following it demanded a shift in racial gendered power, with Black women coming to occupy a central place in the late twentieth-century understanding and iconography of global power, Black feminist writers predicted and tracked that shift. More than that, they crafted ways of surviving it. To study this essential craft is to refuse the rush to protect the homeland that vernacular periodization calls forth and, too, to temper the periodizing claims that mystify rather than clarify the nature of contemporary racial power in the wake of our serial, and worsening, campaigns of the incessant war.

Dr. Erica R. Edwards is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University. She is the author of Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership and The Other Side of Terror: Black Women and the Culture of US Empire (NYU Press, forthcoming in Spring 2021) and the co-editor of Keywords for African American Studies (NYU Press, 2018).


  1. Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (London ; New York: Verso, 2012).[]
  2. "Text of George Bush's Speech," The Guardian, September 21, 2001.[]
  3. Anthony Zurcher, "Trump Says Virus Worse 'attack' than Pearl Harbor," BBC News, May 7, 2020.[]
  4. Richard Gray, After the Fall: American Literature since 9/11 (Chichester, West Sussex: WileyBlackwell, 2011), 5. See also Peter C. Herman, Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11, 1st ed. (Milton: Routledge Ltd, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019); Keith Wilhite, The City since 9/11: Literature, Film, Television (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016); Sonia Baelo-Allué, "The Depiction of 9/11 in Literature: The Role of Images and Intermedial References," Radical History Review 2011, no. 111 (2011): 184-193; Martin Rendall, 9/11 and the Literature of Terror (Edinburgh: University Press, Eup, 2011). []
  5. Jarvis C. McInnis, "A Corporate Plantation Reading Public: Labor, Literacy, and Diaspora in the Global Black South," American Literature 91, no. 3 (September 1, 2019): 526.[]
  6. Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters, 1st Vintage contemporaries, Vintage Contemporaries (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1992), 15.[]
  7. Michelle Ann Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 278, 280.[]
  8. Angela Davis, "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves," The Massachusetts Review 13, no. 1/2 (1972): 89.[]
  9. Ibid., 89, 95.[]
  10. Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection : Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4, 42.[]
  11. Ibid., 116.[]
  12. Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, Justice, Power, and Politics (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 189.[]
  13. The history of state-sanctioned torture through government bodies like the CIA is useful here, but I am also referring to the history of policing and incarceration as torture. See Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, 1st edition, The American Empire Project (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006); Cassandra Shaylor, "'It's like Living in a Black Hole': Women of Color and Solitary Confinement in the Prison Industrial Complex (Symposium: Women in Prison)," New England Journal on Criminal & Civil Confinement 24, no. 2 (1998): 416; Safiya Bukhari, The War before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison & Fighting for Those Left Behind (New York City: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2010); Andrea J. Ritchie, Invisible No More: Police Violence against Black Women and Women of Color (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2017); James Bliss, "Black Feminism Out of Place," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41, no. 4 (2016): 727-749; Joy James, Shadowboxing : Representations of Black Feminist Politics, 1st edition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999); Joy James, The New Abolitionists: (Neo) Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings, SUNY Series, Philosophy and Race (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).[]
  14. Ritchie, Invisible No More, 69.[]
  15. Joseph Masco, The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 2.[]
  16. Masco, 26; see also Nadine Naber, Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism (NYU Press, 2012), 61.[]
  17. Jordan T. Camp, Incarcerating the Crisis : Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016), 5. On how the political elite criminalized the freedom struggle as a way of recovering from the defeat of Jim Crow, see Vesla M. Weaver, "Frontlash: Race and the Development of Punitive Crime Policy," Studies in American Political Development 21, no. 2 (2007): 230-265.[]
  18. Daulatzai, Black Star, Crescent Moon : The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America; Junaid Akram Rana, Terrifying Muslims : Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Junaid Rana and Gilberto Rosas, "Managing Crisis," Cultural Dynamics 18, no. 3 (2006): 219-234.[]
  19. Erica R. Edwards, "Sex after the Black Normal," Differences 26, no. 1 (2015): 141-167.[]
  20. Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1st edition (New York: Knopf, 1993), 291-292.[]
  21. Ibid., 292.[]
  22. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, Cultures of United States Imperialism, New Americanists (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).[]