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.
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.
Asante, Molefi Kete. “The Discipline of Africology at the Crossroads; Toward an Eshuan Response to Intellectual Dilemma.”The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research, Vol. 35, No. 2, pages 37-49. The Black Scholar Press: San Francisco, 2005.
Cohen, Jean L. and Arato, Andrew.Civil Society and Political Theory. MIT Press: Cambridge, 1994.
Drake, St. Clair. Black Folk Here and There, Volume 2. Center for Afro-American Studies, UCLA: Los Angeles, 1990.
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Penguin Books: New York, 1990.
Lee, Wen Shu. “One Whiteness Veils Three Uglinesses.”Beyond Borders: A Cultural Reader, 2nd Edition, eds. Randall Bass and Joy Young. Houghton-Mifflin Company: New York, 2003.
Reynolds, Dana. “The African Heritage and Ethnohistory of the Moors: (Background to the emergence of early Berber and Arab peoples, from prehistory to the Islamic Dynasties).” The Golden Age of the Moor, Editor Ivan Van Sertima, pages 93-150. Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, 2006.
Wilderson, Frank B. III. Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Duke University Press: Durham, 2010. Print
Dallas and Baton Rouge mark a new moment in the re-emerging Black Liberation movement, even if many activists aren’t ready to call what’s happening in the streets by that moniker. Experts and pundits have already called both the attack in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter peaceful demonstration and the attack in Baton Rouge 3 days later senseless and unacceptable violence. What they are is a new level of resistance. The shooters, Micah Xavier Johnson and Cosmo Setepenra (Gavin Long) were clear. They shot those police officers in retaliation for the police murders of Black people. They executed their actions in a planned, surgical, and pointed manner. This is resistance, whether one approves of the methods or not. Community activists around the U.S. have long predicted an eventual armed group self-defense resistance because no people could continue to endure the abuse and repression U.S. Africans have endured since the height of the last sustained resistance during the Civil Rights and Black Power era. What have also been predictable are the responses to this heightened resistance: Republican politicians and conservative pundits blaming the president for endangering police with incendiary rhetoric, the president himself characterizing the shootings as “vicious, callous, and despicable,” and cowardly, public figures placing responsibility on the Black Lives Matter movement for supposedly creating a hostile environment for police, traditional Civil Rights leadership, Black elected officials, and Black celebrities calling for peace and decrying violence “from both sides” in the face of the violent oppression of Black people, and the characterizing of Micah X. Johnson and Cosmo Setepenra as mentally unstable, disturbed individuals. All of these responses either mischaracterize or obscure the real context for Dallas and Baton Rouge. They instead offer various forms of cover and permission to pervasive police repression.
President Obama has faithfully maintained business as usual in the United States, an able operative of the sector of the ruling class that he represents. Despite the hyperbolic rhetoric the conservative and liberal political talking points regarding the incompetence or subversion of their opposition, they are united in their commitment to business as usual, the flow of corporate money, and the extension of U.S. military and economic hegemony internationally. President Obama, like every president before him, is the president of white America. So when the antagonistic relationship between African descendents in the U.S. and U.S. society re-emerges in one of its most spectacular forms, policing, the 2nd first Black president finds himself in an untenable position. As an African descended man of color and a lawyer, Mr. Obama is well aware of the violence that characterizes police interactions with Black people.
However, Mr. Obama is also aware of the special place police hold in the hearts of white Americans, who widely view police officers, especially white police officers, as the great defenders of civilization and the American way of life, particularly in the wake of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, both of which, philosophical non-violence notwithstanding, were and are seen as periods of lawlessness and disorder. An impetus to discipline, punish and corral Black resistance has animated public discourse and policy on law and governance since then. So as far back as his first term when Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was erroneously arrested for entering his own house and Mr. Obama correctly and mildly identified the problematically poor behavior, the stupid behavior, of the police when they deal with African and Latino citizens, the conservative critics of the president have used those words to accuse him of inciting hatred and disrespect for the police. The Civil Rights and the Black Power Movements both made it impossible to cling to the myth of U.S. innocence as they both revealed the heavy hand of the State in a contest for democratic space. The professional conservatives refuse to see police repression of Black people for what it is. They are committed to the lie. It doesn’t matter what President Obama says. His critics are a priori ready to lay blame at his feet.
What can I say of the president himself? Because he is the primary representative of the U.S. state and the (problematic) embodiment of the American ego-ideal, he needed to say something about Dallas and Baton Rouge that would reassure Americans that he would defend the humanity and the mission of the downed police officers. He described Micah Johnson’s actions as “vicious, callous, and despicable.” How else could he characterize Johnson’s offensive? He declared that there is no reason to shoot police officers following Setepenra’s attack. He certainly wasn’t going to condone the shootings. But the irony is thick. These words came from the mouth of a man that maintains a kill list, approves the lethal use of drones, and has executed U.S. citizens abroad, liquidating their right to a trial by jury of their peers. U.S. presidents are well acquainted with vicious, callous, despicable uses of violence.
The Black Lives Matter movement provides the easiest target for reactionary blame for Micah Johnson’s and Cosmo Setepenra’s actions. Since the founding of BLM, defenders of the police and the criminal justice system have accused Black Lives Matter of making an already dangerous job even more dangerous. This accusation simply went into overdrive. Black Lives Matter has been disruptive, visible, articulate, resilient and resourceful over the last two years since the spontaneous and sustained resistance in Ferguson, MO, following Mike Brown’s murder. They have kept the issue of both police and private citizen violence against Black people topical through their activism and organizing. Even as recipients of principled criticism from other Black activists engaged in a serious and independent organizing, Black Lives Matter has helped keep Black communities across the U.S. politically engaged with renewed energy.
Black Lives Matter employs non-violent direct actions like vigils, marches, die-ins, and disruptions. One of their most recognizable memes since 2014 is the “Hands-up, don’t shoot” posture and slogan. Black Lives Matter is decidedly non-violent. Those Black people and their non-Black allies demonstrating in the streets have not created the hostile environment. They are responding to the hostile environment Black people endure every day, one in which Black lives so easily end at the hands of the police and private citizens without any guarantee of justice. To do so amounts to an unforgivable sin in U.S. public discourse as it exposes the emptiness of claims to national unity. Black protest cannot divide what was never unified.
Next, we have Representative John Lewis and the rest of the Congressional Black Caucus, Hip Hop MCs and impresarios, and most prominently several NBA superstars declaring for peace, for unity, for family and for understanding on both sides. On the one hand, these responses gloss over the antagonistic relation between U.S. State and Civil Society forces and the U.S. African population. U.S. society developed at the expense of African life and labor, and the society continues to benefit from an exploitative social relation through various sectors such as the prison industrial complex and finance capital in the form of high-interest payday loans and sub-prime loans. On the other hand, these responses assume an equivalency between the national Black community and the State. However, the State is bound by its own laws and international law to serve and protect citizens, including Black citizens. Historically, rather than serving and protecting Black citizens and Black communities, police agencies have aggressively patrolled Black citizens and communities like they are in enemy territory. Black communities possess none of the firepower or the institutional resources available to the state. Nor do Black citizens have anymore obligation to be law abiding than any other citizens and residents. The admonition from highly visible African Americans for the masses to behave better, more respectably, arises from the same false assumptions of pervasive criminality in Black communities. The police, as agents of the state, have a higher duty to behave ethically, and when they don’t, the state has a higher duty to hold the police responsible. The regular and routine exonerations of police officers (and private citizens) or the minimal consequences for police officers (and private citizens) after they have shot or choked and killed Black citizens, and others, have created an environment of impunity in the face of the murders of Black people. That is exactly why the value of Black lives has been asserted. The only threat the Black community poses to police officers is the one that haunts their imaginations and the imagination of the society at large. That phantom of Black criminality also infiltrates the common sense of the national Black community.
Highly visible veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, Black elected officials, Black chiefs-of-police, and Black celebrities, all those who have most directly befitted from the advances gained with the limited opening of access since the Civil Rights Movement, have every reason to believe in the system. It has rewarded them greatly. So they try to walk a fine line, asserting the dignity and rights of Black people in the context of discrimination and racialized policing, but defending the fundamental credibility and authority of the system. But this sector of the U.S. national Black community, the Black middle classes, the Black petty bourgeoisie, the primary beneficiaries of Affirmative Action programs after white women as a group, is upholding its part of the “new racial bribe,” the bargain with white power in the United States described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. In the face of this, the U.S. African majority, the working class, the barely working, the mass incarcerated, the priced-out, suffer deeply all the worst effects of an exploitative, parasitic and violent system. Those folks Houston Baker, Jr. defends as the poor Black majority in Little Africas all over the U.S. require no sensitivity training to understand better the plight of the police, as Russell Simmons recently recommended in Los Angeles. Black Lives Matter and all the formations who demonstrate under that slogan and others who offer principled criticism of BLM are to be applauded for remaining in the streets and pushing back against attempts to shut down the movement after the shootings. By doing so, they have challenged the turn to a new old narrative of police endangerment and police bravery by keeping the focus on police misconduct and systemic racism that demonstrate the colonial relationship the U.S. maintains with the U.S. African population.
Finally, several commentators have declared, outside of their expertise, that Micah Johnson and Cosmo Setepenra (Gavin Long) clearly suffered from mental illness. Why else would they ambush the police? They would have to be disturbed to do so, right? Both men received their training from the U.S. military, the former from the army and the latter from the marines. They executed their attacks in a tactical manner. They used the element of surprise to their advantage. They targeted armed forces. They acted with purpose and offered rationales for their actions. They conceived of themselves as politically informed, and engaged with a declared enemy. They acted as militant insurgents. From a Fanonian perspective, far from a sign of mental illness, the actions of Johnson and Setepenra manifest a turn toward mental health, a reasonable response to the violence of the white supremacist state and society and a claim to the right of group defense and group preservation. As for those who claim the attacks were false flag operations to shift the narrative in favor of the police and further criminalize and alienate Black resistance, even if this were the case, and I for one strongly doubt that, the attacks have not been widely condemned by the grassroots, nor have the street protesters been deterred, and the example set runs a high probability of inspiring deeper resistance. That does not mean that shootings of police will necessarily increase, but it instills a sense of consequence when the state is so unreliable. To characterize the actions as the work of the nefarious covert state is to deny the resistance the therapeutic effects of militant group defense. So even if one cannot condone Johnson and Setepenra on the grounds of a philosophical commitment to non-violent resistance or tactical cost-benefit analysis of armed action, they should not be characterized as disturbed. They are certainly no more disturbed than their fellow veterans who joined U.S. police departments, nor more disturbed than the rest of us colonized bodies and minds who daily engage in self and group negating practices.
All the officers connected to the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore have been acquitted or had the charges dismissed, despite the official ruling of homicide. This is why the resistance exists. This is why, for some, the tactics of Black Lives Matter are insufficient. This is why the resistance has intensified. This is also why the repression will intensify. As conversations on police and Black community relations move forward, or turn in circles, as calls for improved “race relations” continue to sound, the comments of Officer Jonathan Aledda of North Miami, Florida, should be kept at the forefront of the conversation. Charles Kinsey, the behavioral specialist in North Miami whom Officer Aledda recently shot despite Kinsey stretching out on the ground with his hands up, asked the officer why he shot him. Officer Aledda responded, “I don’t know.” He doesn’t know. He doesn’t necessarily have to know. He did not act with reason. He acted from thoughtless compulsion when confronted with a black body, a Black life. That should be most disturbing.
Fire this time! We’ve got a cayenne–hot mix of social critique
&call to action that addresses the urgency of our situations
locally, nationally and globally.
Earth,Water & Sky: The Race Politics of Pollution
Official policy & corporate interests– embedded in the cultural matrix of White Supremacy–conspire to ensure that Black and Brown peoples bear the brunt of crisis caused by industrial polluters. We see it in the global effects of climate change and in our toxin-saturated local communities. We see it in the development ventures that disfigure our neighborhoods, create hazards, disorient and displace us.
We must see that we have a human right to place and to sound environments.
Session Topics: Climate Change, Flint Water Poisoning, Public Health Policy, Resistance Efforts
These are scenes from the second day of protests from one pocket of protests in Los Angeles the day following the Zimmerman verdict.
What is left to say? Now a month since a jury of his peers acquitted George Zimmerman, what is there left to say? Some of us have assailed the failure of the justice system, the lackluster performance of the prosecution, the cynicism of the defense, the complicity of the judge in her pre-trial and pre-deliberation instructions to disregard the issue of race and racial profiling, the apparent inability of the jury to empathize with Trayvon’s suffering and his parents’ pain rather than Zimmerman’s predicament and his family’s anxiety. These targets deserve our missiles, but they were only doing what the system conditions them to do, protect white power and protect white property, including the property whiteness. The mainstream responses to the verdict were predictable: calls for “peace,” calls to respect the verdict, appeals to the underlying fairness of the U.S. judicial system, rote denials of racism, praise for Trayvon’s parents for their “quiet dignity” and calls for prayer, the barely contained triumphalism of white folks, spewing forth on social media and cable news, and comments from the black POTUS and his operatives in civil society designed to de-mobilize the righteous anger of Black folks and their allies. But we shouldn’t expect justice from a system wired to exploit and oppress. We shouldn’t squander the moment by simply pursuing a federal and/or civil rights case. What do we mean when we have been correctly in the streets demanding justice for Trayvon? What is Justice for Trayvon, for Aiyana Stanley Jones, and for the all the other Black folks killed extra-judicially, one every 28 hours? And how do we create that for ourselves so that we can stop hurting?
Even though the other jurors have challenged the characterizations of their deliberations as represented by Juror B37 to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, they nonetheless perpetuated the denial of the right of Black people to life. That’s what that verdict and the stand-your-ground-law that was never directly introduced in the trial but haunted its every performance finally mean: Black people cannot expect their right to life to be recognized or respected. It is a version of the Taney decision in the Dred Scott Case: Black people have no rights that any white persons need to respect, including the right to life or self-defense. Trayvon could be pursued and confronted, and when he resorted to defend himself, unarmed, he can be shot and in effect found guilty of aggravated assault. And we knew that we were all found guilty again, guilty of making white people anxious, agitated by our presence, a presence they both abhor and demand. We remain stuck in someone else’s racialized psycho-drama, one that casts us as the stain that must always be removed but that must also always be present as the negation against which whiteness finds meaning. We need to pull ourselves out of that phantasm.
As to the fairness of the trial, it was plenty fair, that is, plenty white. Zimmerman was tried by a jury of his peers, his white peers, 5 to 1, and his class peers or peer-wannabes. And the defense presented raised reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds. But reasonable doubt means different things to different communities. Reasonable doubt can’t be abstracted from direct experience or pre-existing attitudes and expectations. It does not operate in a vacuum.
That’s why Zimmerman was armed. That’s why thirty-three states have instituted stand-your-ground laws. That’s why white people have been buying guns in record numbers since the election of Obama, a major feat considering how well-armed the white U.S has been since there has been a U.S. Fear of black people is always reasonable to most white people, and others, in a system of white supremacy. Fear animates U.S. politics and culture. The jury arrived at the verdict demanded by precepts of racism white supremacy, the a priori guilt of Black people, and subsequent “necessary” behavior of white people to do what is fair for them if not justice for Black people, and others, the defense of whiteness.
LAPD rolled four deep in their squad cars for days. Heightened surveillance has been in effect in the ‘hood since the verdict: bicycle cops, the ever present helicopter, they even broke out the horseback cops. None of this is new. LAPD has always acted as an occupying force in African and Chicano-Mexicano-Latino neighborhoods. Citywide tactical alert for days, primarily visible in South L.A., I certainly didn’t see a heavy police presence on the Westside, despite the citywide alert. The Zimmerman trial and verdict has confirmed that the system does indeed work, the global system of white supremacy. Things are cooler on the streets now. But we ain’t finished! We had better not be finished, because they certainly aren’t finished with us, pushing us into irrelevance, the grave and prison.
America loves its “nigras,” except when America hates us, which is most of the time since America loves to hate its “nigras.” The appallingTrayvon Martin murder is only the latest example of how U.S. American hatred of Black people remains the default attitude the general population of the United States, including internally colonized communities, holds toward identifiably/identified African people. Of course, U.S. hatred of Black people is not unique or isolated but rather constitutes a major sector of the African hating modern world. U.S. Americans show their hatred for Black people not only through the random killing of Africans, whether by the state in the form of the police and penal system or by private citizens like George Zimmerman, but also through the inevitable character investigation/assassination of the Black victims and their families. U.S. Americans are even easily disposed to hate the Black people they seem to love the most, collegiate and professional athletes, always ready to adore them for their on-field or on-court brilliance and to condemn them for their “arrogance,” “thuggishness,” or insufficient gratitude in the same moment. So no one should wonder that while most Black folks in the U.S. see a plain case of search and destroy racial profiling by Zimmerman against Martin, many white people and others have vigorously rationalized Zimmerman’s actions or questioned Martin’s actions and character.
It simply goes against the wiring of U.S. political culture to defend Black people without looking for fault in the victims, their families, their communities or their culture. To do otherwise would mean admitting how badly Africans have been treated in the U.S. and for how long Africans have been treated badly by the U.S. and its citizens. Nor should we ever underestimate the enthusiasm with which some Black people will join in the choruses of condemnation. Black people have also learned and internalized the lessons of hating Black people. There lingers an accusation ever fouling the air of the U.S. social environment: somehow we Black people deserve our mistreatment, if for no other reason than we had the bad judgment to be born African.
We have seen this all before this case. Of course Trayvon has been held responsible for his own murder. His hoodie, his online persona, his insufficient humility when facing his pursuer, all of these mark him as responsible for his own death because the mainstream already reads these as the accessories of his feared black, male body. One does not have to search that far back and can draw an unbroken timeline of the abuse of Black people being blamed on those same Black people. We should remember that many people seriously believed Rodney King posed a threat to the circle of police officers beating him. People have defended the public arrests and handcuffing of Black children younger than ten years-old as a form of tough love, good for them in the long run. A six year-old Black girl in Georgia was just arrested and handcuffed for throwing a tantrum at school April 13 in Georgia. Also, many folks had choice words for the Black New Orleanians caught after Katrina hit and the levees broke. Regardless of the circumstance, Black people are held responsible for their own poverty and their own degradation, not the system nor its managers and enforcers.
Fifteen years ago, right about when Black churches were being torched, white 18 year-old Jeremy Joseph Strohmeyer committed a vicious crime against 7 year-old Black Sherrice Iverson, raping her and killing her in a Nevada casino bathroom. Strohmeyer was not characterized as a monster in the mainstream media, but as disturbed young man clearly in need of help and even compassion. The greatest venom was reserved her father. Her parents’ grief and their loss could offer no resistance to the accusations of child neglect. The reflexive rationalization of Strohmeyer’s mental state became more important than the heinous crime he committed. His friend David Cash, who saw Strohmeyer take Sherrice into a bathroom stall and did nothing to stop him, served no time. The fault had to lie with Mr. Iverson, and his humiliation had to be public because Black people, especially working class Black people, must be portrayed as unsympathetic. That Mr. Iverson may have failed as a parent had to matter at least as much as Strohmeyer’s crime if not more. Sherrice was mostly forgotten in a great deal of the public discussion. Black people must be held responsible for their own victimization.
These same kinds of concerns for George Zimmerman’s safety and his mental and emotional fragility have re-emerged. The anguish of Trayvon’s family was of such little note that the police infamously failed to notify them for three days. Yet, we are not allowed in public to think that white people and others treat Black people viciously simply because they hate Black people. Defenders of the mainstream quickly characterize accusations of racist motivations for Black maltreatment as the real problem of racializing events, and warn against assuming the collective responsibility of white people. Warnings go out about the futility of rioting, and the police in the already over-policed Black neighborhoods go on high alert. Under no circumstance are black people to get angry and get organized. The Jena, Louisiana, Black community put the local police and district attorney’s office on blast nationally, and folks flocked to Jena to demand justice for the six young men caught up in the criminal injustice system. Since then, as Jena fell from the news cycle and consciousness, Jordan Flaherty has reported on sweeping police reprisals against Jena’s Black community through the ubiquitous vehicle of the drug war. Collective responsibility must be reserved for Black people, not collective action.
So now that George Zimmerman has been arrested and charged, albeit with a lesser charge than first degree murder, what happens to the anger? Can a million hoodies translate into a campaign against mass incarceration of U.S. Africans, against ongoing police murder and abuse in Black communities, or self-defense training? Can that empty signifier, the hoodie, expose the contradictions inherent in U.S. society, or has it given people the mistaken idea that wearing a hoodie and posting a photo on social media in and of themselves somehow challenge the status quo without needing to organize, continue to demonstrate, and show up in force in the courtroom when Zimmerman is tried. In the now two months since Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death, unarmed Rekia Boyd in Chicago was shot by an off duty police officer, and the unarmed Kendrec McDade was shot by the police in Pasadena, California. Police have just recently arrested two private white citizens in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for hunting and killing Black people. How does a million hoodies march deal with civilian violence against Black people? And what justice can Black people really expect from a system more accustomed to prosecuting them rather than protecting and serving them?
Hating Black people in the United States is more American than apple pie, a legacy of the Dutch in North America. Perhaps organizers of the million hoodies marches would do well to read or re-read Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She wrote to expose the political and economic interests behind lynch-law in the U.S. Wells-Barnett pointed out the economic boon that came to white businessmen as a result of the terror eliminating Black competition. Contemporary gun sales and private prison corporate shares indicate that demonizing, fearing and loathing Black people remains lucrative business. Wells-Barnett also had some pointed responses to the white terror of her era: economic boycott, migration away from the regions of the most intense violence (although the move from the South to the West barely mitigated the violence), publicizing the crimes through media, and of course, “…a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” Too often for Black folks then and now, the law and its representatives constitute the perpetrators of the violence.
Economic boycott remains an effective tool but needs a focused target and goal. Other than leaving North America, an idea not to be dismissed out of hand, there is nowhere in the U.S. to which to migrate. Our great-great-grandparents and great grandparents did that and found new forms of the old hatred waiting for them. Black media does bring these tragedies to Black national consciousness while mainstream news regurgitates the latest in bread and circuses or the most recent narrative floated by corporate and government power. The challenge there is to maintain the Black narrative and also connect it to the U.S. system of exploitation and degradation, rather than reporting on these events as isolated. Now, nothing makes U.S. Americans, white or otherwise, more nervous than the thought of armed Black self-defense. But under conditions in which persons can and do treat Black life cheaply, in which persons disregard Black grief and anguish, and in which mass media depict Black people as deserving of our oppression while they neglect to report or under report that Black people constitute by far the largest number of victims of hate crimes, no sector of state comes to the defense of our lives and limbs. If we cannot or will not defend ourselves, no one will. If we do not have the right to stand our ground, as the unarmed Trayvon himself may have done, as anyone should be able to do when one is being followed by a stranger with ill or at least questionable intent, then we do not have the right to live. Is the U.S state and are its citizens ready to admit publicly that they believe at their core that Black people really do not have the right to live? That is probably too much honesty for the post-racial United States.
In Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898, Ada Ferrer describes a nationalist revolutionary process in late Nineteenth Century Cuba that created new subject positions for African descended Cubans, enslaved and free, which in turn threatened the symbolic order such that social relations formed under a slave-society regime exercised a counter pressure that frustrated the most liberatory practices of the independence struggle. The threat to the social order in Cuba following the 1868 declaration of the independence struggle resulted in a propaganda offensive from the Spanish colonial government that initially succeeded by invoking the modern colonial symbolic order through the accusation of “race war”. The partnering of independence and emancipation first articulated by Carlos Manuel De Cespedes in 1868 produced a tension between what a Cuban nationality could mean in the face of a freed and armed Black population and a Hispano-Catholic cultural hegemony. The power of the symbolic order emerges always and already asserting itself under any historical condition. Defined as language, the attempt to describe and assign meaning to the experience of “the real,” and enacted through the formal and informal uses of language by institutions and individuals, people perform the symbolic order through custom and habit. We reproduce the symbolic order through law, education, commerce, customary behaviors, and the myriad conscious and unconscious retellings of the “…legends, stories, history, and above all historicity” (Fanon 112) that inhabit our understanding of how the world does and “should” work. The symbolic exerts a policing action on worldview, placing boundaries on what should be imagined. In other words, the symbolic order is the ideological ground upon which the subject figure acts.
The symbolic order under the regime of modern colonialism and slavery has posited the ontological difficulty of “blackness.” Blackness, as a human condition, has been constructed as a sign of both the absence and the negation of civilization. Indeed, the possibility of human blackness has even been brought into question as Western intellectuals have for centuries now seriously debated whether black peoples are members of the human species, or to what degree black people may be humans. Whereas the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century bourgeois revolutions of the Americas and Europe reformed the Western symbolic relationship among social classes, raising the citizen-subject to ontological equality with the traditional nobility, introducing new behaviors and new explanations for those behaviors, black revolutionary struggle, as in Haiti, threatens to overturn the symbolic order more fundamentally, that is, from its foundation. For example, in response to the colonial state invoking “race war” as the proper representation of the independence struggle, Cuban nationalists of the 1880s and 1890s invoked a policy of “racelessness.” The nationalists invented racelessness specifically to erase the blackness of the independence struggle while avoiding an open appeal to whiteness. But racelessness, as Ada Ferrer shows, means different things from different subject positions. An attempt to shift the terrain of the symbolic, “racelessness” remains trapped in the language of race and the practice of white privilege, thus reproducing the ruling ideology.
Another aspect of the symbolic order, gender, also complicates the meaning of independence and national character. In their own representation of the emerging Cuban nation, the Cuban nationalists of the late Nineteenth Century constructed an emphatically masculine image of the nation. Governance remained the domain of men, black and/or white, those who through their struggle and sacrifice made independence possible. The nationalist writers erase the contributions of women, without whom the war for independence could not succeed. They erase the women from their representations of the struggle, thus excluding women from the public sphere of an independent Cuba. On the gender question, the rebel army and nationalist intellectuals reproduced the symbolic order apparently without question, and this was despite the very active cadres of women forming revolutionary clubs, support committees and raising funds for the fight as Nancy Mirabal describes in “No Country but the One We Must Fight For” (62). These tensions produced by challenges to the symbolic order and recourses to the symbolic order coalesce in the court martial of Quintin Bandera, a successful Black general of the rebel army, discussed below.
Struggle transforms. When Carlos Manuel De Cespedes freed his slaves, declared them co-citizens and exhorted them to join him and other Cuban patriots in an armed struggle against the Spanish colonizer, he invited those African men into new subject positions, namely into a new claim to a Black subjectivity in the public sphere. The call to independence and emancipation, the two being constructed as necessary for the realization of each other, and the call for African men to participate in the practice of independence and emancipation, created a sanctioned public space for Black subjectivity within a symbolic order that denies or at best doubts the possibility of a public Black subjectivity. The Black body is already marked as an object, the body par excellence, if not exclusively, that can be enslaved. The constructed pre-condition of the enslaved/enslaveable Black body made the certificate of freedom necessary for free Africans in slave societies, the authority of the master represented through the law embodied in the text of the certificate, here invoked to supersede the symbolic order of custom. Unlike the unsanctioned public subjectivity of the maroon communities, the palenques, De Cespedes’ call to revolution and emancipation constructed Black armed resistance as a creative force in the forging of the nation, rather than the destructive element preventing the emergence of the nation. It was after all, Ferrer reports, the prominent African descent population that allowed Spain to represent Cuba as incapable of nationhood because the nation would be a Black nation, another Haiti, in a sense an anti-nation. I will return to this subject below.
African men expressed their new subject positions through new and open challenges to traditional social relations during the independence war. Ferrer offers the example of Emeterio Palacios, a free black tobacco worker from Santiago who was detained by the Spanish authorities for suspicion of supporting the rebel cause. What is of significant interest in his case has less to do with his actual or perceived support of the rebels, but rather with the manner in which he (allegedly) greeted a white man familiarly in a café. Ferrer reports Palacios as having withheld the honorific title Don from the white man, D. Jose Gilli, and instead calling Gilli ciudadanito [little citizen]: “Palacios thus not only denied him the don to address him as “citizen” and therefore as an equal, but he also opted for the diminutive form of the word, much in the same manner that non-blacks often addressed blacks as negrito” (41). Palacios’s familiarity was taken as a threat to public order of the same high order as any possible rebel activity. Indeed, they are of a piece, the leveling of social relations both through race, class, and the claim to citizenship.
Again, Ferrer offers Antonio Maceo as an illuminating example of the challenge to the symbolic order expressed through traditional social relations. When the Spanish commander Martinez Campos approached Maceo to bring him into the Pact of Zanjon, which inscribed the negotiated surrender of the Cuban rebels after ten years of war, Maceo, having already assumed a position in the symbolic order denied to him on at least two counts as colonial subject and a mulato, that of an honorable man, he also challenged Spain’s claim to being a civilized nation, equating civilization and progress with full emancipation and social equality. As long as Spain was a slave owning empire, which is to say an empire at all, colonialism being a species of slavery, the colonial state could not be characterized as civilized. Maceo turns the colonial symbolic order on its head (66).
Nonetheless, the symbolic order is resilient and adaptable. It frames the ideology of a culture and gives shape to the content of that ideology, reproducing the ideology through the embodied actions of people, including those cultural acts like speech acts or the exercise of politeness or courtesy. Even in the execution of the war, the tension created by the challenge to the symbolic order reveals the difficulty with which those invested in the maintenance of the order attempt to reproduce traditional social relations. Insurgent white officer Ignacio Mora’s specific criticisms about the transfer of power from the white Cuban Ignacio Agramonte to the black Dominican Maximo Gomez betray a cultural-racial-national anxiety. Ferrer reproduces this passage from his war diary:
“If [Gomez] has not destroyed the Camaguey division and converted it into bands, it is because its officer corps, formed by Agramonte, still remember the maxims and rules of their old leader. How jarring it is to see today’s camps! The noise, the gambling [el juego], the shooting of cattle, the tango of the blacks, the wild parties, and the filth of these camps warn us that their leader completed his apprenticeship in Santo Domingo. Everything reveals his poor upbringing and the society from which he comes.” (52)
Mora clearly experienced anxiety over the shifting cultural forms of recreation in the camps. War had been conducted as a “gentlemen’s” endeavor for centuries, reproducing the class structure of civilian society. His comments replicate the myths, stories and legends that cast African cultural forms as inherently immoral and antithetical to “the love of discipline, order, or morality” (52). Even his reference to “bands” may allude to unease with a shift to guerrilla tactics by Gomez. The culture of war came into tension with the shifting subjectivities that the rupture of the independence war allowed to emerge.
Under the modern colonial condition of white supremacy, the black body represents a troubling presence. The symbolic order under white supremacist colonialism demands that blackness, however widely or narrowly represented, to be defined as a problem. Thus, the pressure exerted by the hegemonic symbolic order rendered the notion of an African Cuba, another Haiti, unthinkable except as a nightmare by slave societies and their neo-slavery arrangements following emancipation throughout the Americas in the Nineteenth Century. Colonial Spain could therefore easily employ a propaganda war to exploit the fear of race war and the anxiety produced in the rebel camps by the darkening of the ranks and the officer corps. Mora, cited above, was not among those rebels who surrendered to Spain in 1871, but he agreed with those who surrendered that the “problem” with the rebel army, the reason for its de-moralization, could be found in its increasingly African descended character. Elite men asserted the old class hierarchies and racial hierarchies within the rebel army, and these assertions crashed against the new public faces of African men, Cuban citizens and patriots making claims to equality through shared armed struggle and the embrace of the values of the French Revolution: Liberte’, Egalite’, Fraternite’.
The representation of the independence struggle as a race war effectively demoralized white Cuban support for the war both within the rebel army and among the civilian population. To combat claims of race war by Blacks against whites during the period between La Guerra Chiquita and the final war for independence, 1880 to 1895, the Cuban nationalists on the island and in exile reconstructed the war under the rubric of racelessness. But racelessness is a tricky proposition. It remains within the semantic field of race language. The appeal to racelessness in the hands and from the pens of the most sympathetic of white Cubans could not transcend the “problem” of blackness. Racelessness as a position was necessary because the racist anxieties of the white population needed to be assuaged. In this way, racelessness reinforced a Eurocentric premise: the opinions and attitudes that mattered most were the opinions, fears and attitudes of whites, not blacks. Ferrer explains that the whitening of Cuba through increased Spanish immigration in the period helped the nationalists in this reconstruction of the discourse of the Ten Years’ War. Indeed, throughout Latin America, ruling elites encouraged and facilitated European immigration in order to whiten the overwhelmingly Mestizo/Mulato populations.
Even as the final war in the 1890s drew to a close, and before the United States’ intervention, another sort of whitening occurred with the moving of white Cubans, many late comers to the struggle, into the military administrative positions that would eventually become the local governance, and thus limited or eliminated the possibility of black leadership in the future civilian administration of the nation. Suitability for leadership became associated with “refinement” and “civility” and education, traits preconceived as nearly impossible in the black individual and monopolized by elite families. Consistent with early Spanish colonial policy regarding gentes de razon or “persons of reason,” namely those conversant in the Spanish language, the sign of a rational mind, the turn to refinement as the mark of suitability for leadership again reproduced the lie that on the one hand equates progress, modernity and civilization with European history and culture, and on the other alienates Spain’s (and other European and settler colonialists’) colonial subjects from their own histories and cultures in antagonistic relation to Europe and whiteness. Black majority threatens white existence and thus must remain controlled.
In contrast, in the hands and from the pens of black Cuban nationalists, the appeal to racelessness was an appeal to the democratic and egalitarian principles of the independence struggle. It should have meant the removal of traditional barriers to advancement or access to power. When it did not mean that, but instead denied access to African descended persons or facilitated the advancement of white individuals in order to remove the suggestion of favoritism toward blacks and mulattos, and thus remove charges of race war like those routinely aimed at Maceo, black Cuban intellectuals decried the practice as fundamentally treasonous, betraying the very ideals upon which the struggle was launched by Manuel de Cespedes in 1868, indeed antithetical to slogan of the French Revolution used freely by the Cubans: liberty, equality, fraternity.
Ferrer effectively demonstrates this in her comparative analysis of the writings of Juan Gualberto Gomez, a mulatto journalist, and Cuban patriot Jose Marti. Once again betraying the anxiety producing presence of the black body, the black insurgent was a prominent figure for reconstruction. Whereas the white reading audience needed to be reassured of the fidelity and even passivity of the black insurgent, grateful and deferential under arms, black and mulatto writers writing for a black press championed the black insurgents’ dedication to Cuban nationality, gratitude for the independence struggle that led to the end of slavery, but also the reminder of the nation’s debt of gratitude to the black insurgents. Black and white Cuban nationalists both represented race war waged by blacks against whites as unthinkable and the accusation as slanderous.
Finally, Ferrer effectively raises the problematic of gender in the representations of the independence struggle. The Cuban independence writers constructed a singularly masculine image of the nation. The descriptions of men, black and white, struggling as brothers in arms, suffering the hardships of camp life and war, dying in each other’s arms and carrying each other’s wounded bodies placed a claim on the public sphere of the emerging nation. These writers constructed the nation as the creation of modern Cuban men inventing a new kind of brotherhood in the world. This representation is, of course, a fiction. Ferrer mentions the participation of mambisas, Cuban women who fought in battle with the men (174). Susan D. Greenbaum discusses Paulina Pedroso, a black Cuban woman living in Tampa, Florida, during the independence struggle who among other activities organized locally in support of independence (53). Mirabal reports on organizations founded by Cuban and Puerto Rican women in support of the independence struggle when they were barred from joining the male revolutionary clubs formed by the exile communities in North America, organizations like La Hijas de Cuba that challenged the hegemony of all-male groups like Junta Revolucionaria de Cuba y Puerto Rico (62). Nonetheless, the masculinist language of the independence movements constrained access to power for women engaged in the struggle: “They remained, despite their efforts and relative power, outside of the decision-making body of what was quickly becoming the main exile nationalist organization, the PRC [Partido Revolucionario Cubano] (64). This masculinist discourse of nation doubly erased the contributions of African descended Cuban women.
Like the black presence, and with its own body of myths, stories, legends, histories and historicities, the female presence is also troubling in the masculinist symbolic order of patriarchal culture. To return to a point introduced above, Ferrer’s discussion of the court martial of Quintin Bandera focuses on the cultural differences that emerged in the accusations against him, namely his openness about his fraternization with women in the camp, even though what he was accused of was a widespread practice throughout the rebel army, if done under cover of dark, as it were. Among other things, the morality of his camp was impugned because of the presence of his female partner and those of his men in the camp, rather than at a remove as was the custom.
A “rustic” man, Bandera’s manner clashed with the expectations of the more “refined” Cuban leadership. Bandera broke with the expectations and the representation of the rebel camp as an exclusively masculine space. The broader, more inclusive and accurate model for the nation could have been taken from Bandera’s example, except that it too deeply upset the symbolic order that had been inscribed regarding the makers of the nation. I even wonder to what degree Bandera and the men and women in his army may have been conducting the practice of war in a maroon manner. That is mere speculation. But I am fascinated by the suggestion.
Ferrer’s use of the war diaries and memoirs of the rebels provide an illuminating view into the ways in which political and social struggle transforms social relations and public subjectivities. The African descended men (and women) who participated in this struggle in the thousands on the one hand seized upon this opportunity to abolish the slave society that held many of them and/or their family members as chattel, and on the other hand to participate in the forging of a new, independent modern nation, one that would owe them loyalty and gratitude for their service. Ferrer’s examination of the independence writers also offers another example the role of a discourse of nationalism and the press in inventing the nation. Nonetheless, the racialized symbolic order of modernity (re)imposed itself upon the Cuban struggle for independence, highlighting the difficulty involved in dismantling systems of hierarchy and oppression, however necessary the work, something to which contemporary Revolutionary Cuba attended early in its process when Fidel claimed African blood flowing freely through Cuban veins as constitutive of Cuban identity (qtd. in Cole 77). Revolutionary Cuba acted upon this heritage through internationalist solidarity with liberation and revolutionary movements and nations in Africa and the Africa Diaspora. Whereas Revolutionary Cuba has also inherited and promoted its own version of racelessness, and despite lingering racists attitudes and assumptions in Cuba, the revolution has at least seriously attempted to reconcile the African character of Cuban history, culture and genealogy with a contemporary Cuban national identity, another form of challenge to the modern symbolic order. Read Ada Ferrer’s Insurgent Cuba. She provides valuable lessons for us as some of us continue to work for a free world, for genuine African liberation.
Castro, Fidel. “We Stand with the People of Africa.” Venceremos Brigade Pamphlet. 1976. Quoted in “Afro-American Solidarity with Cuba. Johnetta B. Cole. The Black Scholar: Report from Cuba. Summer 1977.
Greenbaum, Susan D. “Afro-Cubans in Tampa.” The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Eds. Miriam Jimenez Roman and Juan Flores. Duke University Press: Durham, 2010. Pp. 51-61.
Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. Grove Press: New York, 1967. Pp. 109-140.
Ferrer, Ada. Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1999.
Mirabal, Nancy, Raquel. “No Country but the One We Fight For: The Emergence of an Antillean Nation and Community in New York City, 1860-1901.” Mambo Montage. Eds. Agustin Lao-Montes and Arlene Davila. Columbia University Press: New York, 2001. Pp. 57-72.