A massacre in Atlanta, and the United States turns its media eyes on the harassment and violence visited upon Asian communities. The scope of murder in Atlanta made it impossible to continue to keep this particular expression of white nationalist violence muted in the public consciousness. Folks have organized demonstrations in cities around the country with minimal media coverage, in contrast to the coverage of the 2020 uprisings. Instead, we hear performances of anti-hate postures and statements, and I have seen a noticeable increase in Asian performers in commercial advertisements and public service media. It feels like a rather ghoulish disaster capitalism. The danger is real for Asian communities and individuals, and it is an old danger, and a danger as pervasive and long-lasting as all the other peculiarly U.S. racisms against people who are non-white.
The city and state in which I live had several eruptions of anti-Asian violence throughout their history. In Downtown Los Angeles, in a place on Los Angeles Street not far from site of the Pueblo’s founding, at a place that was called Calle de los Negros, Negro Alley, nineteen Chinese workers were murdered by a mob. This was in 1871, a period in which anti-African violence intensified throughout the country, the U.S. government waged a war of extermination against the First Nations of the West, and the epidemic of lynching spread through every region of the U.S. These routine deployments of violence and terror, as well as antagonistic actions from state agents and civil society formations, have always been about the same thing, the assertion that the United States is a white country, and the Asian body is a foreign body, a body that threatens contamination. This applies to every region of Asia.
I think about this, and I think about all the Asian people that have been part of my life. I remember Milky. I don’t remember her real name. We called her Milky, a Japanese girl, one of several in our kindergarten classroom at Thirty-Ninth Street School, now Tom Bradley Science Magnet, in Leimert Park, mostly African children, many Japanese children, and a few Mexican children, in 1967-1968. I think of William, a Chinese boy who I grew up with in our neighborhood, the neighborhood now called King Estates, on Van Ness Ave. William was just another homey in the ‘hood. As we got older, went to different high schools, we spent less time together, but we remained friendly for as long as we continued to cross paths, and until my family moved out of the neighborhood for the Athens neighborhood halfway through high school and those encounters became even more rare. I think of Bob’s Market and the Filipino family that lived across the street from my grandparents on Bonnie Brae Avenue, one of the families closest to my mother’s family on the block, the camaraderie of my mother, my aunt and my uncles with the daughters and the son, my grandparents and the parents, and the welcome and the treats that my cousin I received when we visited Bob’s Market on the corner of Bonnie Brae and Temple, Bob, the father in the family. In think of Evelyn, their youngest daughter and our first babysitter, and of how much we loved her, and when she disappeared as a babysitter from our lives while adults spoke in hushed tones about her and left our questions unanswered, and of how much my family cried at her funeral after a battle with something they called leukemia.
I think of these dear ones fondly, and so many others really, relationships that we formed before I was ten years old. This continued through junior high school and high school. Asian folks lived, schooled, and worked next to us. Asian folks shared an experience of white violence and racism, exploitation, and alienation. We identified around those experiences, those histories. Sometimes some Black kids, bullies and bangers, picked on the Asian kids. Sometimes some Asian kids, bullies and bangers, picked on Black kids. Yet mostly and every day, we all got along. We all identified with Bruce Lee. We all idolized Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We loved that Bruce and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were friends. Some of us even knew about Asian members of the Black Panther Party. Plus we all knew Black folks with an Asian parent.
I didn’t know any of the victims in Atlanta. I don’t know who among my Asian friends, colleagues, and students have faced recent harassment. I assume all of them have because I don’t know of a time when anti-Asian racism hasn’t been a routine aspect of life in the U.S. So militant white nationalism has muscled up in the last year, fueled by a blustering demagogue of blistering effect. Last year, these folks drove trucks into demonstrators. Deeply frightened and deeply entitled people have begun to unleash pent-up resentments that have stewed since the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, cultivated by cynical politicians and by a profitable and quite mainstream propaganda industry with religious conviction, and handed down to the generations that were to be end of racism. Still it lingers. Still it poisons. Still it kills. Still, it fills bank accounts.
I could not help but think of Vincent Chin. I didn’t know him either. But He remains a touchstone for me, this Chinese American man who two white men decided deserved execution because they would not be replaced, would not have their jobs replaced by the Japanese. In that moment, any Asian would do. They were all Japanese, and this was just another American atrocity. Vincent Chin received nothing like justice. His killers received three-years-probation and a fine for $3000 each, and eventual acquittal from federal charges. Within two years of his homicide, Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign declared that it was “morning in America again.” It’s still morning in America, a red, hellscape morning. Black lives matter. Asian lives matter. The people remain in the street. Today, once again, people say his name, Vincent Chin. We know our departed loved ones hear us. This is something Africans and Asians share. I hear Vincent Chin, crying, and bitterly laughing, mourning in America.
The Original Afro-Futurist, Sun Ra who brought the reality of Diop’s and Ben Jochannan’s Ancient Black Egypt to the performance stage in the form of what we ordinarily call jazz and dance embodied by the Arkestra, with a vision of the future in which Black people can flourish, even if that means finding a new planet
Below is a video recording of an excerpt of a presentation on the negritude writers offered at the public JOKO, a project of the Joko Collective in Los Angeles, CA. I would have preferred that the videographer captured more of the slides than the speaker.
Join us for a free screening of Mweze Ngangura’s film Pièces D’identitès (Pieces of Identity) in its twentieth anniversary year. The film explores the costs the colonial legacy continues to exact from Africans in terms of the uses of African bodies, African mentalities, and African cultural artifacts:
“Mani Kongo, the venerable king of the Bakongo, sets out alone on a quest for his long-lost daughter, Mwana, whom he sent to Belgium to study medicine many years before. As soon as he leaves his village and enters the Westernized world he finds his identity challenged. At the travel agency in Kinshasa, young urban trend-setters mistake the king’s royal fetishes as the latest fashion statement while customs officials try to confiscate them as imported art objects. Eventually, robbed, homeless and penniless, Mani Kongo is tricked into pawning his royal regalia, literally his “pieces of identity,” to an unscrupulous art dealer…While Mani Kongo has only temporarily lost his ID [also a meaning of the phrase ‘pieces of identity,’ one’s state-issued identification, one’s papers], the younger generation in the film finds itself adrift in Europe without ever having had one. Mwana (aka Amanda) has just been released from jail for drug-running and is forced to take a job in a strip club where Africans act out Europeans’ lurid fantasies of the other. She was seduced and is still pursued by a small-time, designer-clad hustler or sapeur, Viva wa Viva, whose motto is “the brand makes the man.”…Chaka-Jo is a mulatto [sic] cabdriver, trapped between white and black, the son of an unknown Belgian father abducted from his Congolese mother and placed in a Belgian orphanage. In his frustration, he holds up white bars like a Robin Hood dressed as a Congolese warrior proclaiming himself the ‘Savior of Humanity,’ ” California Newsreel.
A comedy, Ngangura weaves the fibers of these characters’ lives into a poignant portrait of contemporary African conditions in the diaspora, still so fundamentally relevant in the face of contemporary African migration to Europe in search jobs, peace and security only to find continued super exploitation
Thursday, December 29, 6 PM to 9 PM, the Joko Collective presents a panel discussion on Ujamaa, Cooperative Economics, as the path to economic development for African communities locally and globally: the AFIBA Center, 5730 Crenshaw Blvd. Los Angeles, California.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Modernity and Anti-Black Antagonism
by W. Yusef Doucet
James Weldon Johnson published his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man 105 years ago. 2012 marked the 100 year anniversary of the novel’s original publication, although its popularity had to wait another decade for the high tide of the Harlem Renaissance expression of the New Negro Movement. An era of rapid change and urbanization, the first decades of Twentieth Century were also a period of intense attack on the African person and the black body, regardless of the abolition of slavery throughout the Americas. The world of the Twentieth Century inherited the momentum of the previous four hundred years. So whereas Johnson’s ex-colored man narrator rides the color line into the Twentieth Century, that line was at least four hundred years in the making. Generally characterized as an era of human progress, the glaring if ignored paradox of the modern era remains with us: as the world system has modernized, the life conditions of the great majority of Black peoples have deteriorated.
In the era of Jay-Z, Kobe, Lebron, Mandela, Obama, Oprah, and Powell, among other highly visible individuals, and a persistent discourse of Black people’s progress and firsts on the path to bourgeois normalcy, this may seem counter-intuitive. However, here identified as beginning in the Early Modern Period with the Portuguese contact with the Kongo Kingdom in 1488 forward to the era of the rule of the global European bourgeoisie and the emergence of the modern capitalist nation-state, the modern era has developed in an antagonism to Black people so fundamental to the structure of modernity that the modern state has remained unable to assimilate Black people as citizen-subjects, Black people understood broadly as the non-white world and more specifically as those persons primarily of darker skin complexion racialized as “Negroid” by the Enlightenment Era inventors of modern racial categories. This distinction is important because within the non-white world, some Blacks are blacker than others. For while black can be an open sign able to embrace a range of complexions and ethnic identities, including Romany, Southern Europeans, and Eastern Europeans in some cases, Taiwanese born Communications scholar Wen Shu Lee is correct when she writes that, “…in the United States, color words, red, white, yellow, black and brown, not only racialize [Lee’s emphasis] people, but rank order them hierarchically to parcel out different social and material interests” (676). The rank ordering is not unique to the United States as Lee goes on to explain, describing the experiences of her grandmother as a darker complexioned Native Taiwanese woman. .
In the dominant discourses of the modern era, Black entry into the fields of the social, the economic, the political and the cultural as subjects requires an annihilation of Blackness, actual and symbolic, expressed through the dual modalities negro-phobia and negro-philia. Both modes entail the destruction of the Black person as such, or even the possibility of a Black personhood, and result in the routine and broadly unremarked destruction of black bodies, perpetrated by the “System” and the “Lifeworld.” In this, Jurgen Habermas’ distinction between system and lifeworld breaks down. For the Blacks of the modern world, the lifeworld remains always and already open to colonization by the system, both as money and power. Resistance can be asserted against the system, however with significantly reduced ability to rebuff systemic mechanisms. This inability to resist effectively the pressure of power and money separates colonized persons from colonizers. The question some observers of Black life are beginning to raise is how is it that this totalitarian intervention into Black life may have been made “necessary” in order for the lifeworld of the non-Black world to resist its own penetration by the system. That is to say, the possibility of the historical processes of modernization may have required the construction of an Absolute Outside, a position filled by Black people. To have a people’s lifeworld invaded by the system – the process of colonization – is to reduce those people to blackness or near blackness, to bring them to the brink of social death.
I use the term antagonism the way Frank B. Wilderson III uses it in his book Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, precisely to convey the necessity of the anti-Black principle to the structuring of the modern world. Black people have been constructed as the meaning producing opposition necessary for white definition. Blackness signifies both the boundary of the sensible and that which is beyond the boundary, the object against which subjects have measured their humanity and the vigor of their civilizations, their capacity for compassion and their capacity for cruelty. It is not a question of conflict or contradiction resolvable through a dialectical synthesis of the opposing subject positions but rather a question of opposing and irreconcilable subject positions requiring the obliteration of one or the other subject positions, rendering it as object, objectification. Blackness and Black people hold a clearly demarcated position in the modern Symbolic Order, both as Law and Custom, as the people who are not people, those who cannot be reduced to slavery because they have been born for slavery.
The pressure on Johnson’s narrator to become an ex-colored man, as long as that choice is available to him, has a long pre-history. Pre-modern expressions of this antagonism are already found in Western Asian texts by the early Middle Ages, for example the Babylonian Talmud and Midrash- although not the Jerusalem Talmud -and The Arabian Nights, both of which represent dark skin and African phenotype as a mark of ugliness and play on the stereotype of Black males as oversexed near-beasts while primarily ignoring the Black female, except to place her in a harem as object of erotic if not especially aesthetic pleasure, anticipating the anti-Black antagonism of European modernity (Drake 18, 160). Revealingly, modern aesthetic discourses disqualify the possibility of Black beauty. The declaration “I am black, but comely,” from the early modern King James Version Bible translation of “The Song of Songs of Solomon” marks beauty as intrinsically external to dark skin. The comeliness of the Shulamite maiden speaking in the poem operates in spite of her blackness, not because of it. The tension between an ascribed anti-aestheticism and an observable erotic attraction begs for further reflection and investigation outside the scope of this present essay. Here let it suffice to say that the erotic attraction severely troubles the aesthetic restriction on blackness. The call went out that “Black is Beautiful,” but few actually believed it, evidenced by the profitability and the popularity of skin lightening creams and hair straightening products globally. Michelle Obama would cause a national crisis in the United States if she were to wear her hair in a natural style. This aesthetic restriction on blackness replicates in other fields, in fact, in all areas of human activity.
The outline of human history favored and reproduced by Hegel in his Philosophy of History proposes a movement of the world-historical from the East to the West, stretching from East Asia and including India, through Western Asia and encompassing all of Turkey, Europe, and North Africa. This for Hegel is the very theater upon which World History has unfolded, and those outside this theater constitute the people outside history, the Blacks and “Savages” of Africa, the Americas, the Pacific and Australasia. I want to distinguish this ascription from the ascription “without history” for these peoples, unless “without” is understood in its spatial sense. These populations were, nor are now, neither the lumpen proletariat nor the parasitic finance capitalists and aristocracies who produce nothing but live on the excess of society. They are rather the populations outside the Western discourse of the world-historical, brought into that discourse through invasion. That they were or are people inside and with their own histories does not matter to the Eurocentric discourse because they have as of yet been unable to sustain a powerful enough and widely diffused counter discourse starting from their own epistemic grounds, epistemes increasingly difficult to access under the pressure of modern ideologies: Abrahamic monotheisms, capitalism, scientism, bourgeois liberalisms and Eurocentric socialisms. The limit matters, the divide between the historical and the a-historical, the former taking meaning from the latter, the latter marked as the meaning of meaninglessness by the former. This is the meaning of the novel’s and history’s color line.
Regardless of this discourse placing Blacks outside the theater of history, Black people and nations have always acted as agents of history within this very terrain described by Hegel and most history books in U.S. schools (Western Schools generally?). For example, scholars have well documented Ancient Egyptian contributions to the historical and social development of the European and Western Asian societies. Hegel openly wonders how Egypt, “so close to African stupidity,” could have produced such a highly developed society under that circumstance. Because Blacks had already been so roundly degraded by Law and Custom by the Nineteenth Century, these Black agents in the history of the West and East required re-imaging. They are reconstructed as slaves, or as whites. This is the intellectual equivalent to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Blacks in history are simply whitened or disappeared. Modern ideas of blackness could not contain the notion of Black civilization. The two words had been taken as contradictions to each other such that even non-white civilizations could not be Black, bringing the “colored” peoples of Asia and North Africa into an honorary and temporary whiteness according to the needs of the system and the emotional demands of the lifeworld: the need to remain generally honored against the ground of a generally dishonored Other. The United States Census Bureau and the United States Immigration and Nationalization Service categorize Western Asian and North African nationals as officially white, regardless of their actual complexions or genetic heritages. These Black lands have been legally declared white. They have been colonized in the interest of whiteness by the symbolic order. And within them, the regime of the color hierarchy described by Wen Shu Lee rules.
One can clearly see the consequences of the color hierarchy and the general dishonoring of the Black subject at work during the recent conflict in North Africa, specifically Libya, and a region that falls within the western “world-historical” narrative. The person of the late Muammar Qaddafi notwithstanding, research on the NATO campaign has confirmed that the anti-government forces in Benghazi and other cities of Libya committed war crimes specifically against Black skinned persons, not as supposed mercenaries- claims that have been effectively disputed as many of these individuals were indigenous Libyans and other African migrant workers supplementing the Libyan workforce –but as Blacks, as “slaves” who had dishonored the lighter skin Arabs by their very presence. Fanon in the Wretched of the Earth briefly addresses this North African contradiction when he acknowledges Arab anxiety with being condemned to “niggerdom.” Since Libya has been conceptually removed from Africa and placed in the Middle East, like the other countries of the Maghreb and Egypt, the consumers of Western news media, including Al Jazeera, can easily imagine that these Africans are foreigners in an African country, and only imagine with difficulty that there are indigenous Blacks in Libya throughout the country. Similarly, the revolutions unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt had been primarily represented as momentous for the politics of the Middle East rather than for Africa, where they had an inspirational effect on under reported movements in several countries, many of them also ruled by regimes useful to Western interests.
Again, the anxiety arises from the valuation of Blacks as already slaves or imminently enslaveable, the fate of the Abd, already widely practiced by the Ninth Century in Western Asia. Dana Reynolds finds this attitude materially grounded in the growing association of blackness with servitude in North Africa under Turkish rule: “The Northern element in North Africa…came to look condescendingly on Africa as a place of uncultured peoples, from whence comes the perennial slave or “Abd.” It is a perception which has not entirely disappeared among Westernized peoples of the North African area and the Middle East” (98). Reynolds mitigates the attitude with her qualifying phrase “not entirely,” nor is it spread only among Westernized peoples of the region. The attitude she describes continues to be widespread and deeply felt, with deadly consequences primarily for black bodies. This is that process that Fanon describes as the construction of the Manichean world of colonialism, victories won by cannon, gun, and intrepid missionaries.
Notwithstanding the figuration of Blacks as people “without history,” the institution of Black enslavement has served as perhaps the critical element in the emergence of capitalism as the dynamic force it has been in modern history. Put another way, Blacks can only conceptually be seen as without history insofar as their actual enslaved and enslaveable bodies have made possible the advance of history. Slavery in the modern era has had the contradictory roles of primitive mode of production and primitive capitalist mode of production. Modern slavery and the conquest of the Americas created the vast wealth that underwrote the development of the modern systems of banking, commerce, insuring against loss and eventual industrialization. Further, insofar as Blacks were purchased as mascots for European and Turkish courts and in lots for their labor power on the plantations of the Americas, the black body had already materialized as a fetish commodity during the Early Modern era, as luxuries for the privileged classes and economic necessities for the conversion of natural resources and agricultural products into the raw materials needed to make all other commodities.
Moreover, the manufactured and raw materials of inner Africa had been enjoyed as luxury items in both Asia and Europe since antiquity. The caravans crossing the Sahara and the trading cities of the Swahili Coast participated in a cosmopolitan trade network with Asia at least since Rome’s late imperial period. Rome fed its empire with cereals grown in Egypt and its other African territories. Consequently, the figuring of Black peoples as people without history, even when history is narrowly understood as the history of the Temperate Zone of Eurasia, can only stand on the conceptual denial of Black agency in history, on a kind of fantasy history of whiteness that a priori assumes the impossibility of Black agency beyond a limited, local Black sphere of life. The world-historical is denied to Black peoples. That Black intellectuals and others find it necessary to establish a history of Black agency, that they and others must demonstrate it, that Black agency in history always stays in dispute and in need of proof illustrates the conceptual vulnerability of the Black world. What other people have to defend the ethnic character of their past societies? By contrast, he presence of many ethnic groups and what modern classification calls different races in the Southern Europe of Greco-Roman antiquity does not conceptually threaten the “whiteness” or European-ness of either Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome.
Traditional normative coordination of that part of the lifeworld that situates peoples within the discourse of their self-awareness as distinct peoples with distinct if overlapping histories, something like an ethnic and/or national identity, puts constant pressure on the communicative coordination of these dissident scholars and artists to intervene against the denial of Black agency. The ex-colored man takes solace in history upon learning his “race,” to find himself and a record of the people of his mother. Johnson even places an argument for an African origin of civilization in the mouth of a white Union Army veteran. The modern requirement to place Black peoples in the Absolute Outside of history, even outside the history of other non-white peoples, is why I am trying to distinguish between the idea of people “without history” and the idea of people “outside history” as discussed above. Can we consider narratives of history, of the world-historical, spatially outside the terrain of Asia and Europe, especially Western Asia and Western Europe? Can the world be conceptually flipped on its axis? Can a history that does not require teleology of progress which privileges a specific territoriality and its residents be described? Can we trouble the automatic valuation of modernization as progress? Can we question the inevitability of growth so necessary to the logic of capitalism, a logic that sustains the dominant narrative of the world-historical?
In the modern era, at least one other impact of the Black subject, re-figured as object, has had an important effect on the political development of modern liberal states. In the revolutionary discourses of the Eighteenth Century, both the French and the Anglo-American defenders of rights resorted to the figure of the slave and the master to describe their relationship to the monarchs. The presence of actual slaves among them, slaves in the hundreds of thousands in the Americas, underscored the meaning of servitude, of the inability to act on one’s own behalf and in one’s own defense, in the defense of one’s loved ones and community. In a sense, The Declaration of Independence and The Declaration of the Rights of Man could resonate with the clamoring bourgeoisie and workers of England’s North American colonies and France because they could see for themselves exactly what it meant to be enslaved, the actual indignities to which one was always subjected, the apparent total lack of all agency, and know that they did not want to be that, not even if by analogy. Actual existing slavery provided the ground upon which Eighteenth Century revolutionaries figured their own servitude.
The Blacks of the world have been unable to resist “the penetration and distortion of the internal processes and the reproduction of cultural, social, and socializing institutions” so that the “historically new form of juridification represented by rights” (Cohen and Arato 440) not only has been unable to alleviate the suffering of Black people broadly, but has functioned as another site of alienation. That is the fetid heart of the Dred Scott Decision of Justice Taney in 1857. It was not simply that Dred Scott or any other Black person had no right any white man need respect, but that Scott or any other Black person had no standing before the court as a juridical subject, only as a juridical object. Again, communicative coordination of the lifeworld does not overcome traditional normative coordination but reinforces it. Scott could not put forward a contradictory claim against his owner Sanford before the court because the court recognized the impossibility of an object, a non-human, having a claim. For the Absolute Outside, rights cannot be legislated nor their protections extended to non-persons who are always and already socially dead and the object of the “permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (Patterson qtd in Wilderson 14). The ethnic term “slave” loses its ethnic meaning Slav and becomes replaced with a new ethnic meaning, negro, Black, or African. The Arabic term abed, meaning servant, becomes an ethnic term. The modern ontology of blackness makes qualified designations like “white slavery” necessary.
In the United States, system repression of African descent communities has always been supplemented by physical and structural violence conducted by private citizens and organizations, by lifeworld institutions, and sanctioned by the System. When Black people have successfully asserted claims to the rights associated with the bourgeois liberal state by applying social and political pressure from a position simultaneously outside and inside the lifeworld, and in some cases inside and outside institutions of the system, the gains have been accompanied by new forms of paternalism and repression that deepen the antagonism. The end of slavery in the United States and Brazil was accompanied by an increase in Blacks under state penal control for vagrancy. The end of Reconstruction in the United States saw the emergence of anti-Black vigilante violence and the breakdown of codified law called lynching. The achievements of the Black Freedom Movement, especially in the Civil Rights form, have been met with mass incarceration under the auspices of the Drug War, the Tough-on-Crime Movement, and the Victim’s Rights Movement. At the same time, great efforts were sincerely undertaken by committed missionaries and educators working for the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Great Society programs to remake Black people in the image of modern, bourgeois, Anglo-Americans, to educate them away from themselves. Whether negro-phobic or negro-philic, both modalities reveal an anxiety with Black people and an impulse to destroy Black people or to destroy and remake Black people, to eliminate the problem or correct the problem.
Whereas the Black subject is most certain of her or his own humanity, she or he is just as aware of being relegated to the Absolute Outside, and indeed cannot help but to doubt Black claims to humanity and history, given the volume of the discourse questioning that humanity and the circumstantial evidence of deprivation and generally degraded life conditions most Black people endure, a stubbornly persistent degradation that reveals the structural character of Black suffering. Black suffering seems like it is supposed to be part of the world system because the world system has always required Black suffering. It is taken as the natural state of the world. That assumption always remains present in the mind of the Black subject. This double consciousness articulated by DuBois and others is an effect of the near total penetration of the lifeworld of Blacks by the System and I think should be understood as a mark of the alienation subsequent to contact and conquest. Double consciousness is a symptom of the subject’s dis-identification with herself, the de-centering that colonial enslavement imposes. Molefi Kete Asante writes: “Double-consciousness is the measure of Black insanity; the solution is the acceptance of an Afrocentric agency” (46). However one might understand or try to affect an authentic agency, Afrocentric or otherwise, double consciousness cannot be the ground upon which the subject takes a permanent stand. It must be resolved: over identification with the colonizing enslaver, Western Asian or European, or identification with the Absolute Outside.
In his 105 year old novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson dramatizes double consciousness through the device of the mixed-race narrator describing his journey back and forth across the color line following Reconstruction. His constant journeys from the Southern U.S. to the Northern U.S and vice-versa and journeys across the Atlantic embody his ontological journey between racial positions. He goes from one world to another at critical moments in his life, always arriving in the same world, one in which Black people are degraded, one in which Blacks live to serve the needs of whites. Johnson’s narrator, shares his story as one sharing a dangerous confidence. He reveals the secret of his life, one that could ruin him, his wife and his children, the fact of his “practical joke on society” (1), passing for white. The danger is real because revelation would mean death for the characters, social death, and the consequential possibility of physical death.
Johnson’s portrayal of the narrator’s discovery of his blackness, his relegation to the Absolute Outside demonstrates early in the novel the meaning of blackness in the modern era. The narrator, self-described as having an ivory complexion with thick, black curly hair, knows the value of whiteness before he learns the cost of blackness. Living in Connecticut, he is aware that his white classmates look down on his Black classmates, even if he doesn’t know why. When his blackness is revealed to him, he experiences it as a death. His immediate reaction is one of stupor, followed by a search for defects in the face of his mother, his Black parent, and a close examination of his own face. When he asks his mother if he is “a nigger,” and she adamantly tells him no, he asks if he is white. She can only tell him, “…the best blood of the South is in you,” (12). Despite his ivory skin, knowledge of his blackness is knowledge of his banishment from the center of human society to its margins, necessary margins giving shape to society and pushed up against themselves at the limits of human community. The narrator says of his teacher, the one who reveals him to himself and the one who confirms for the public the fact of his blackness, “It may be that she never knew that she gave me a sword-thrust that day in school which was years in healing,” (12). Learning of one’s Blackness is like dying, or at least like receiving a mortal wound. This moment of “death” is the moment double consciousness emerges.
Once the narrator has come into this knowledge, the knowledge that casts him out of the Garden of Eden of whiteness, his life can only be expressed as tragedy. The tragedy of the Absolute Outside makes the comedy of his practical joke possible. His passing for the living, his resolution of the double consciousness he attempts to submerge so that his children don’t have to bear the weight of double consciousness, makes a criminal of him and a traitor of his wife who is complicit. The real tragedy is that it must be a tragedy at all.
In keeping with the motif of journey, the narrator near the end of the novel, having returned from Europe intending to claim a Black identity and use his gifts as a talented pianist and composer for “the uplift of the race,” finds himself on a train traveling from Nashville to Atlanta. Having grown accustomed to finer comforts after his travels in Europe with his patron the Millionaire who attempted to dissuade the narrator from claiming a Black identity when it is clearly unnecessary, he makes his way to a smoking car, a car un-open to Black men. The Millionaire’s dissuasion anticipates the correct question: why would anyone in his right mind choose to be Black? Double consciousness is not one’s right mind. It is one’s interpellated mind.
In the smoking car, the narrator listens to a conversation between a Texan, owner of a cotton plantation, and the Civil War veteran of the Union army cited above with business interests in the South. They are joined in the car by a young, northern college instructor teaching in an Alabama state college and a cigar manufacturer described as Jewish-looking, both of whom understand that they have something to lose if too defensive of Black people. The narrator playing white listens to these white men discuss “the negro problem.” The Texan, the negro-phobe, castigates the veteran, the negro-phile, for having fought a war for an unworthy cause, imperiling civilization itself. He very indelicately states it, “Well,…anything- no country at all- is better than having niggers over you….and now do you believe that all the niggers on earth are worth the good white blood that was spilt? You freed the nigger and you gave him the ballot, but you couldn’t make a citizen out of him” (117). The Union veteran offers a thoughtful and informed response to the Texan, challenging his assertion that the Anglo-Saxon was the dynamic principle in history and crediting the early advance of civilization to the “darker and what we now call inferior races and nations” (118-119). In the face of the Union veteran’s logic, the Texan goes to the heart of the matter: “You want us to treat niggers as equals….To bring it right home to you, would you let your daughter marry a nigger?” The veteran responds: “No, I wouldn’t consent to my daughter’s marrying a nigger, but that doesn’t prevent my treating a black man fairly” (119). The second statement falls flat under the pressure of the first. He cannot really treat a Black man fairly, that is as a white man, a fair man, if he is unable to entertain the possibility of a Black son-in-law and Black grandchildren.
The narrator shortly after witnesses a lynching, a Black man burned alive and with no recourse to law. He then decides that he can’t choose to be Black because to do so is to choose social death. Only the dead, the non-human, can be treated so cruelly. He explains, “All the while I understood that it was not discouragement or fear or search for a larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals. For certainly the law would restrain and punish the malicious burning alive of animals,” (139). That would make some animals more human, or at least more deserving of humane treatment than Black people under the symbolic order, that is under Law and Custom- perhaps I should say Law, Custom, and Discourse. For many Black observers of the Michael Vick case, there was more than a small amount of bitter amusement that the lives of dogs are counted worthier than the lives of Black people murdered by the police officers who rarely receive criminal convictions.
The narrator takes the path many have chosen, “marrying up,” choosing to whiten the family line, annihilate the Black family line, always a genetically difficult task. He chooses a white wife who reacts to his secret similarly to the narrator’s own reaction as a child. She becomes ill. Because he loves her, he leaves her alone. A year later when they reunite, he agrees to live as a white man and raise their children as white. What he does, he does for the children. The same choice has been made for centuries throughout the Americas and in North Africa. As skin blackness came to be associated with slave status, it became desirable to conceive lighter skin children whenever possible. A choice in the Americas mostly withheld from Black men, this choice was often made by Black women for their children conceived with white or lighter men. In North Africa, it was not uncommon to marry Southern and Eastern European male enslaved into the family, a practice very rare for enslaved from the Sudan. Even today, lighter skinned Arab populations openly disapprove of lighter complexioned Arab women marrying dark complexioned Africans, even as Arab male access to dark complexioned African women continues to be more acceptable if not ideal. Again, this practice indicates the awareness of the ongoing general dishonoring of Black peoples in the modern era. The role of Blackness in the modern world is still to mark the edge of human community.
Anti-Black antagonism, to borrow a phrase from Zizek, constitutes the obscene underside of bourgeois liberal modernity. The ability of modern liberal societies, in both the domain of the System and the domain of the Lifeworld, to embrace some Black persons, either through mitigating the public effects of racialized structures through legislation or litigation and through practices like “marrying up” or the cultivation of friendships across racial barriers works periodically to relieve the pressure of living in the Absolute Outside. It also allows liberal societies to maintain their images of themselves as rational, open societies, making the antagonism bearable. But I am suggesting that anti-Black antagonism will continue to frustrate Black subjectivity in modernity because of attitudes and practices reaching back to the pre-modern and extending into the contemporary moment. The possibility of generating equivalencies across the barrier as Laclau suggests, will necessarily fall short. I do not, however, want to preclude the possibility of genuine solidarity, nor the fact of genuine solidarity. But solidarity requires the recognition of the subjectivity of those absolutely outside and a willingness to join the Absolute Outside, a kind of ontological suicide. Therefore, Black people, all the so-called Savages, and those in solidarity with them should seriously consider the possibilities present in the Great Refusal Habermas rejects.
I resort to the Great Refusal because Law, Custom, and Discourse, the symbolic order of modernity particularly in bourgeois liberal states, cannot alleviate the suffering of Black people without undermining the symbolic order and the System itself, opening the lifeworld of the empire’s citizens to open penetration. To put it another way, the positioning of Black peoples as the Absolute Outside, and the construction of a continuum of Outsides encompassing the “near whites” of Latin America and Western Asia to the “savages” of the world, all those indigenous peoples living as Blacks or as “near Blacks,” may be the very structure upon which the edifice of whiteness, an effect of modernization, rests. Luwezi Kinshasa explains the process as the development of capitalism as white power, and white power as capitalism. Because of how capitalism emerged as a dynamic force in history, it cannot be separated from global white power. Whereas the dynamism of capitalist production in its various stages and forms launched Europe and its settler satellites on a path of over-development, it launched the people of the Global South into a long era of under-development. These historical processes created the conditions in which the Ex-colored Man’s decision is reasonable, necessary for social life, and the source of his tragic need to confess the crime. In short, if the modern world has in effect been constructed as a toxic environment for Black life and culture, so toxic that Johnson’s Ex-colored Man feels it necessary to erase his blackness to insure his children’s future and that choice is reasonable, and when 100 years since its publication, Black life remains imminently open to violence from agents of the state, private citizens and institutional structures, the Great Refusal may mean choosing life.
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