It is Just Flint

7 Mar

Ruth Wilson Gilmore powerfully defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” By that definition to decry the exposure of the citizens of Flint–who are predominately poor or working class, predominantly people of color–to poisoning by lead and other pollutants in their drinking water “environmental racism” is a pleonasm, or a Hurstonian double-description. Racism shapes lived environments from neighborhood composition and location, to the likelihood of being able to traverse space unmolested. Environmental toxicity is just one of the many somatic effects of racism, which ranges from poorer sleeping to higher likelihood of suffering from hypertension or living in an area without access to good nutrition. Yet it is necessary to specify and name with precision the current crisis, where race predicts proximity to pollution and other environmental hazards.

Gilmore reminds us that killing is not just outright murder, and not just the police or their surrogates. Her definition also has the advantage of reminding us that neither Snyder nor his administration needs to have personal animus toward black people or the racialized poor. Those populations,  as such, are vulnerable to premature death, and the state exploited that vulnerability. It’s hard to imagine the good people of Ann Arbor, of Grosse Pointe, of Lansing facing such a dire situation. Nor should anyone. As NourbeSe Philip writes of the Zong massacre, “this should not be / is.”

Whether by willed act or depraved indifference, the government of the state of Michigan, from Governor Rick Snyder down through his administration, allowed this catastrophe (I cannot say “tragedy”) to happen. Its effects will be felt in years to come in destroyed property values, in destroyed property, in public law suits, in lost wages, in elevated healthcare costs, in families struggling to provide for the children and adults dealing with the effect of having been poisoned. It will effect communities and individual lives diverted from whatever other paths may have been available to them.

From the gradually released emails, we know that Snyder could have declared an emergency sooner. We know the warnings reached Snyder’s inner circle. We know those jailed–not yet convicted of a crime, but likely unable to afford bail and possibly innocent of any crime–were forced to drink tap water the state knew to be contaminated. We know that state employees and General Motors (the date on that article is 10/13/2014) switched to alternative sources of water before ordinary citizens could in an systematic, state-organized way. We know that the roots of this crisis are are both historical, rooted in and connected to longer urban struggles, and recent, rooted in the “emergency manager law” that effectively disenfranchised the voters in Flint and the state of Michigan twice: first, when legislators reinstated a version of the fundamentally anti-democratic law after voters moved to repeal it in 2011, and then repeatedly (in mostly majority-black cities) when duly elected city governments were suspended allowing for governor-appointed emergency managers to carry out nominally cost-cutting measures (though there’s evidence that the primary goal was privatization). We know many more things, and we know that the burden of knowing falls disproportionate on some rather than others, and that this disproportion is bad for one’s health. That’s not usually what people mean by “embodied knowledge,” but I think we must consider it in those terms. Genesee made me lose my rest.

The mass-scale disenfranchisement of the citizens of Flint (and other cities, most of which are majority black) makes the situation unique. Journalists have, understandably, used “not just Flint” in order to highlight the staggering scale of black vulnerability to both slow, agonizing death alongside violent, spectacular death. The alliance of technocratic corporatism, “law-and-order,” and the most recent forms of American authoritarianism (though people seem to think Trump is sui generis, one can emplot him and the other current candidates for president through Nixon’s assault against Black Liberation movements and Ronald Reagan launching his campaign over the graves of Civil Rights Activists in Philadelphia, MS) are indeed pervasive and ought to help us to keep in mind the generality of racist governmentality. But Flint seems to me an unusual alignment of a a proud technocrat (“one tough nerd”), brazenly anti-democratic policies, disenfranchisement, and privatization that turns on the flagrant exclusion of many people (again, mostly poor and mostly of color) from the category of “the people” without having to signal it or worry about maintaining legitimacy.  There’s something singular, ungeneralizable about Flint, and the ways concerns for deficits have been weaponized. For all we know, we still have a lot to learn from it. Flint increasingly looks like our collective future.

Interlude: Childhood, Emergency

27 Nov

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven

The news, again, is bad. A child, Tamir Rice, shot to death by police within two seconds of their arrival to the scene. Two seconds. An eye blink is about a third of a second. How long does it take to focus the eye? By what is the eye already focused?

The child was too young to have a criminal record. Young enough, at 12, that to claim he was “no angel” would have been extraordinarily obscene. Yet it did not take long before media agencies began looking into his parents’ past. Around dinner tables across the country, some black uncle or aunt or mother or father or grandparent or brother or sister is asking why the parents weren’t there, didn’t or couldn’t do more to protect him. People will solemnly nod, but they will know the truth. For too many black childhood is a gestation period, an interlude between a period of less-than-innocent babyhood and maturation into full social pathology. Black children, but not just black children, are denied childhood. Instead, they come to be the stuff of nightmares, youths who are simply younger versions of the terror they will embody. “A hallucination of your worst fears.”

If “for the children,” as Lee Edelman and others argued serves as a call to legitimate some forms of social reproduction and the delegitmate others, the opposite of childhood isn’t adulthood but youth. Childhood, or “our children,” represent a form of futurity that is basically the world continuing in perpetuity in the same form, even when we aren’t here, but the children are just versions of ourselves. Youths are dangerous, juvenile delinquents, social pathologies, the reproduction of the not-us that threatens to destroy “us.” Children must be protected, youths are a menace. Childhood is innocent, youth is reckless. Childhood is boundless potential, youth are potential threat, an interlude between birth and fully developed menace. Children must be protected from wayward youths.

This is all obviously racialized, and goes back to the moral panics surrounding urbanization, youths orphaned by wars, immigrant children orphaned by sickness and tenements, black youths beyond direct control. Youths perennially seem older than they are. Tamir Rice’s killer thought he was “about 20.”

When I was a child, my mother insisted that my brother and I should not have realistic-looking toy guns. For one thing, she didn’t want us glorifying violence, or normalizing black death. For another, even then, the news too often solemnly told the stories of boys shot dead by the police for holding toy guns that looked realistic, for holding toy guns that did not look realistic, such as those used to play Laser Tag. (Forgive me for not researching and appending links to the stories.)

By now “furtive movements” has entered the public lexicon as one of the reasons for being stopped and frisked. I for one was taught not to make sudden or ambiguous movements, not to talk back (if I had to speak at all it should be brief). For my mother knew, though she never put it this way, that being a black youth meant to some that I was a problem ready to explode. This is in the era when even black babies were stigmatized as “crack babies,” a category since called into question. Youths, such as “crack babies” are of an ontologically different category than children. They belong to a different time, that of the interlude, the imminent disaster, the emergency. They are the emergency, as Fanon already told us (“Look! A Negro!”) and as Du Bois told us before him.

This is just a short return to the idea of the interlude, that time between acts, that time of anticipation somewhere just short of dread that structures lives and non-lives. Continuing Robin Kelley’s theme about the state of war that shapes the black lifeworld, Rinaldo Walcott wrote:

Black people across North America are living in a state of emergency. It has been a long and unbroken state of emergency.

His title refers to NourbeSe Philip’s insistence on the need to defend the dead. The interlude is the time of waiting for death to emerge, of loving against the death we come up against, of building our lives against the emergency so constant that it does not seem to emerge at all, or seems to emerge only when something happens to remind us.

It’s Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for all of you who fight against the spectacular and quotidian forms of un-worlding and who make us think of black possibilities. I’m thankful for those powerful acts of black imagination that remake the world.

Between Acts: The Interlude

25 Nov

The denial of history to African peoples took time-several hundreds of years beginning with the emergence of Western Europeans from the shadow of Muslim domination and paternalism. It was also a process that was to transport the image of Africa across separate planes of dehumanization latticed by the emerging modalities of Western culture. In England, at first gripped by a combative and often hysterical Christianity-complements of the crusades, the “reconquests,” and the rise of  Italian capitalism-medieval English devouts recorded dreams in which the devil appeared as “a  blacke moore,” “an Ethiope.” This was part of the grammar of the church, the almost singular  repository of knowledge in Europe. Centuries later the Satanic gave way to the representation of Africans as a different sort of beast: dumb, animal labor, the benighted recipient of the benefits of slavery. Thus the “Negro” was conceived.

– Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism

The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.

– Darren Wilson, child killing agent of the state

That black lives matter we have to insist, even though it should go without saying. But we know that “matter” cuts at least two ways, that black lives have consequence and that they provide the substance of the fears the drive the mechanisms of the state that position black lives proximate to death. Robin D. G. Kelley has a piece today that puts Mike Brown’s death, and his killer escaping trial, into a larger context of state violence. He names some of those who in the past 100+ days have been victims of state violence, and highlights ongoing activism in the face of what for practically speaking is a war against mostly working class black and brown folk. It’s an important piece and highlights something important: state violence is different against other forms of violence. Robert McCullouch, St. Louis prosecutor, bristled at the idea that the police kill with impunity. Going without punishment, because people like McCulloch substantially determine whether a crime has been committed meets the very definition of impunity, in this case the state’s refusal to punish its agents. This paragraph seems especially salient:

Whether we call it a war on drugs, or “Operation Ghetto Storm” as the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement dubs it, what we are dealing with is nothing less than permanent war waged by the state and its privatized allies on a mostly poor and marginalized Black and Brown working-class. Five centuries in the making, it stretches from slavery and imperialism to massive systematic criminalization. We see the effects on our children, in the laws that make it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults; in the deluge of zero tolerance policies (again a by-product of the war on drugs); in the startling fact that expulsions and suspensions have risen exponentially despite a significant decline in violent crime. Crisis, moral panics, neoliberal policies, racism fuel an expansive system of human management based on incarceration, surveillance, containment, pacification, lethal occupation, and gross misrepresentation.

I keep coming back to that sense of waiting, that sense of being in the interlude, in that no-time between acts, in this case, between acts of state violence. Not quite in anticipation or dread, but in that way that makes the modality of life itself one of waiting: for a life to begin, for a life to be taken, for a life to appear, for the loved one to get home safe, or not.

In the coming weeks, no doubt there will be interviews with child killing police officers including Michael Brown’s killer. I think there already was one. Watching the live press conference, it was terrifying to see the degree to which the news has become an advertisement for the police. We’re constantly asked to think not from the perspective of the dead child or of the loved ones he or she has left behind, but from the point of view of the shooter, to stop just short of thinking from the perspective of the state. Staying with the shooter, of course, we miss the state, for which these spectacles of violence simply reinforce who is and is not the people, with the police drawn from the underclasses they then terrify, yes, with impunity.These are features, not glitches. We miss the ways poverty has persisted as a racial category, and the ways carrying out the will of the state is a way of trying to keep the state from remembering it’s supposed to be targeting you.

But it misses that thing, that no-time of living for those constructed as threat to be contained, as demon, as soul to be saved, as body over which redemption can be won. It misses the regularity with which we’re reminded of this recursive time that, I think, is not quite tragic but stalled. The interlude.

To imagine his perspective, the shooter’s, is to imagine the world from a place where we didn’t exist, so our stubborn remainder caused fear, panic, rage. He was unspeakably ordinary, confident in his prejudices and perspectives, not banal, not surprising but outrageous.

To imagine his perspective, the shooter’s, is to know that this was happening every day, was everyday, was imminent, possible, thinkable, and that no matter how high we stacked our grief it would never rise above the height of our dead.

It is to imagine ourselves from that place where we are not object but pure imminence, a threat with neither bottom nor top, a coming thing, creeping, waiting to emerge and drag everything down into pools and pools of black.

It is to delight in the image of our own broken bodies, to weight the psychic weight we carry. To see even in our grieving the threat you imagine us to be.

Maybe it is just that we have survived despite the continuing efforts to kill us, we’ve thrived in this interlude neither outside nor belonging to time, and people would feel stupid if after all that killing, all the bones of our ancestors lining the floor of the Atlantic and bleaching still in the swamps, if they didn’t keep hating us the more we failed to be their perfect demon. Maybe they fear we are better, that we’re “on the side of justice, objectively.”

To imagine his perspective, the one marked for death since birth,  is to imagine yourself from the perspective of the nothing, the void, the zero, the non-entity without which it was difficult to calculate what matters and matter itself. To see yourself as incipient erasure.  A zero is not nothing. From the inside, in that interlude, it marks every joy, smile, joke, laugh, pleasure, hurt, and indifferent nothing with the death we had been escaping since the slave ships. To imagine from his perspective might be to begin to imagine other forms of living, the beginning of the next act in which you could live and be free.

Making Sense, Black Survivals

11 Oct

I started this blog thinking around a few lines from Baraka’s “Ka’Ba”:

We have been captured,
and we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image; into a new

Correspondence with ourselves
and our Black family. We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be

the sacred word?

“Words” is plural in part because I had initially misremembered the line, and in part because I wanted to remind myself to think of the sacredness of words, what they can and can’t do, especially now.

The past few months, we have witnessed an upsurge of black death at the hands of the police (and its deputies, self-appointed and otherwise), and a growing list of things black people cannot do, a partial list including allegedly sell loose cigarettes, seek help following an accident, walk in the street, carry snacks, carry a sandwich, carry a toy gun in an open carry state, listen to your music loud, be children, have our lives and deaths treated seriously.

Their names become our sacred words: Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, VonDerrit Myers, John Crawford, Jordan Davis, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Kendrick Johnson, Ramarley Graham. All those not named here, the many more thousands gone. Each one singular and belonging to a general stream of black life and death.

The length of black life is treated with short worth. – Yasiin Bey, “Thieves in the Night”

“The truth is that this country does not know what to do with its black population now that blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for public comfort.” – James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

“Don’t let It touch me! the blackness! Lord!” he whispered
to any handy angel in the sky. – Gwendolyn Brooks, “Riot”

There’s a numbing familiarity in even a partial list of those killed at the hands of the state and those who imagine themselves to be acting on its behalf, defending the property of their fellow citizens, which does not ordinarily include black people. There’s a numbing familiarity of waiting for protests, of the typical deflections (“what about black on black crime?” “If they’d cooperated with the police?”) that generally come down to a demand to suffer in silence. A reminder that our attempts to make sense of this overlook the sense these attacks do make, familiar to us from the spiritual: “went to the rock to hide my face, rock cried out no hiding place.”

But we have to make sense of it. We write and invent stories, poems, songs, new narratives and ways of thinking. We have to insist on our outrage, reject the notion that these killings extrajudicial and judicial, are part of the continuing war of terror that has targeted black people since the beginnings of the West.

The master has to devise preoccupations, or instruments of “social death,” that would prevent the slave from
thinking about restarting the war of captivity. One could say, therefore, that preventing the slave’s literal death is the beginning of mastery. Once the master is instituted, I believe, death-his and his slave’s-becomes anathema to him. The master is not, as such, defined alone by the will to live, as Hegel’s allegory suggests, but also by the will to prevent the defeated from dying, either by suicide or through a rebellious mutiny. – Adélékè Adéèkó, The Slave’s Rebellion

Surviving while black produces a range of feelings: guilt, resolve, exhaustion, gratitude, anger, pride, and fear. The word “survive,” which derives from two Latin words “super” (in addition) and “vivere” (live)—and is typically defined as a continuity of existence despite danger and hardship—brings such feelings into stark relief. What, we might ask, does it mean to live a life that exceeds life? – Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies (quoted here)

To make sense. To figure out. To make or fabricate beyond present limits of thought. Black writing in pursuit of sacred and sacralizing words, livable words and worlds, in pursuit of black survival and life, more abundantly.

There seems something more fundamental in the proximity of blackness and death, blackness as alibi for for murder, blackness construed as deadly weapon, than what is ordinarily meant by either the quotidian and ordinary or what is ordinarily meant by spectacle.

To be accused was to be convicted, to be convicted was to be punished. – Frederick Douglass, 1845 narrative.

Spectacles of violence, including the flagrant, contradictory lies told to explain what happened, have a generalized rather than specific disciplinary function, the flaunted impunity reminding those who need reminding not to get to comfortable. That same impunity reminds those who need reassurance that It, the blackness Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about, will not touch them.

The habits and reflexes of black killability are something more like an atmosphere, that thing out the corner of the black eye unnamed and lurking that like as not will materialize as “punishment,” regular reminders not to get too comfortable, of the capriciousness with which black lives may be deemed guilty and deserving punishment. A storm on the horizon that may come your way or not. A generalized atmosphere mingling guilt, exhaustion, and fear with everyday pain and joy, and that makes joy an act of resistance.

To make sense of it in its generality: name it and make it thinkable, shareable, already shared. To make and remake black lives and possibilities. To make sense of it: to find again the words of restoration, creation, stubborn survival. To imagine, as Toni Morrison wrote: “She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it”

Or as Sylvia Wynter put it, summarizing Frantz Fanon: “The true leap, Fanon wrote at the end of his Black Skins, White Masks, consists in introducing invention into existence. The buck stops with us.”

“Happy,” or, Pop Music as Weapon

2 May

From deep in my soul

I wish you happy feelin’s

– Frankie Beverly, “Happy Feelin’s

Pharrell Williams is a gifted writer of pop music. I see him in the tradition of people like Irving Berlin or Smokey Robinson more than, say,  Curtis Mayfield to whom he is often compared. I want to tease out some of the differences in this post, which primarily come down to their different relationships to the profession and industry.

Though we commonly tend to analyze pop songs through the lens of the biography of singer or writer, it’s worth remembering that at least since the early twentieth century popular music writing has been a profession, and longevity often required volume; the ability to write catchy tunes quickly and reliably. Writers worked under contract, and those who couldn’t produce enough would soon find themselves former songwriters.

Irving Berlin famously offered a set of guidelines for successful songwriting, including melodies within the range of the average voice, easily remembered ideas accented and repeated in verse and chorus, “universal” (i.e., both white men and women would enjoy it) appeal, pathos, originality (within the bounds of convention), lyrics that open onto common ideas or emotions, easily singable words, and simple structures. Above all, he stressed, “The song writer must look upon his work as a business.” And he did, writing an astonishing range of songs from “God Bless America” and “White Christmas” to jazz standards “How Deep is the Ocean” and beyond.

Smokey Robinson, like the legendary Motown teams of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford and Simpson, and later Leon Ware and Norman Whitfield worked in a frankly commercial environment. Berry Gordy would famously ask his employees of songs “Would you buy this record for dollar or would you buy a sandwich?” assuming it was their last dollar. Coming out of this environment, Smokey’s output and genius speaks for itself. He excelled at ballads and dance songs, with the Miracles and solo, and put an indelible stamp on the sound of R&B and pop music. Like Berlin, whose 1911 “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” helped renew international interest in ragtime, Smokey helped to define and shape the sound of an era. His commercial context and instincts (like those of Berry Gordy) need not necessarily detract from his genius. If anything, the constraints under which he worked make his achievements all the more noteworthy.

Curtis Mayfield was also a brilliant songwriter, producing hits under his own name, with The Impressions, and for Aretha Franklin (later En Vogue), Gladys Knight, Jerry Butler, The Staple Singers, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Bob Marley, among others. But Mayfield worked in a different commercial context,and seemingly with a different set of guiding parameters. Perhaps best known for the soundtrack to Superfly, the cinema helped shape Mayfield’s career almost from the beginning (the Impressions’s reworked gospel song “Amen” was featured in Sidney Poitier vehicle Lilies of the Valley). In addition to gospel, his music is shaped by social consciousness, an open avowal of black pride (Gordy, and thus Robinson, largely shied away from politics) on songs like the sneakily militant “We’re a Winner,” “Keep on Pushing” and “Move on Up.”

Mayfield also founded the independent Curtom records, through which he released his own records and those of a host of other soul-era artists. There, he greatly expanded the possibilities of the pop song, pairing intricate, orchestral arrangements with funky grooves and his straining falsetto: his is the sound of black striving and black imagination, for good and for ill. (And he’s not above mocking his fans for dancing to the grooves rather than digging the message.) There’s something at once exhausting and exhilarating about Curtis: you feel moved by the groove, alongside the inadequacy of your movement. It’s hard not to remain aware that the finery, dancing, and pleasure is respite rather than end in itself, even as that pleasure is made an instrument, inviting us to imagine body movement transitioning into political movement, to imagine, invoking Askia Touré, “Rhythm & Blues as a Weapon.”

Of course, weapons are only as effective as those who use them, and the proper weapon depends to a great degree on the nature of the struggle. I started thinking about all of this in light of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” a song I increasingly dislike. The obvious thing to say is that it’s a brilliant pop song, has a great groove, is very catchy, and has inspired many viral videos. But the more I’ve listened to it, the more its call to compulsory well adjustment irks me. It started to irk me even before his asinine theory of the “new black,” a difference that makes no difference, diversity that changes nothing fundamental, the usual black culture without black consciousness (h/t Tamara Nopper for this formulation).

I am a literary scholar, though, so what I want to suggest is that “Happy” has a different structure of address than, say, Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” or Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Happy Feelin’s.” The speaker of Beverly’s song has a happiness he wants to spread all over the world; the speaker of “Happy” wants evidence that “you feel like happiness is the truth.” Given what I said about Berlin and Robinson, it’s not a snide dismissal to ask what does that even mean? Is it asking you to invest in the “feeling” of happiness over and against evidence that, despite the changes and progress pundits laud, the “oppressed seem to have suffered the most on every continent” and still do? In other words, is it to believe that temporary state of release and dancing in your finery is the truth of the world, and the conditions of oppression and exploitation are somehow fantasy? Is it just the old blues-inspired “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes”?

More than that: as in Mayfield’s songs, there’s something capacious about Beverly’s you, who is not asked to do anything but receive these happy feelings. Though “Move on Up” addresses a single “child” (“Hush now, child, and don’t you cry”) its imperative “move on up” always seems, at least to me, to anticipate a broader, more capacious address. The imperative to clap, to keep time with one’s body, cannot effect that transformation of body movement to social movement. Its addressee is individualized. No doubt, this is a song for the club or the concert hall, but it addresses those audiences as an aggregation individual consumers, whose freedom of movement is coextensive with freedom itself.

In slightly different terms, Beverly’s speaker’s insistence on “tell[ing] all [he] see[s]” and Mayfield’s speaker’s insistence on striving for greater freedom operate in a different social and political universe than Williams’ “Happy.” It’s also in a different social universe than Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin'”: though its speaker apparently addresses a single other, it is more relevant, teasing out one of Gaye Theresa Johnson’s arguments, to the destruction of neighborhoods that helped shape car culture, and aware of cruising as an attempt to reconstruct normal domesticity and community, or at least find temporary relief from unbearable conditions. Smokey wrote songs that for the most part were rooted in the real experiences of the people who would be buying the records. One of the signal features of soul-era music is its address to a black counter-public, an attempt to pull “the people” together for collective struggle, and to recode negatives as positive (i.e., the funk, blackness itself). “Happy” speaks to and affirms the popular as simple demographics: the largest number of people in voluntaristic terms.

Everything about “Happy,” including those viral videos, is about atomized individuals declaring their individual happiness sotto voce, listening to their own private concert, the song downloaded from iTunes and played through their earbuds. Its only wish is that you buy this record, and celebrate the individual successes of black people whose success, Williams’ “new black” strongly implies, depends on waning group identification, an ever expansive amnesia archive, and strenuous disavowal of racism as anything other than an individual problem.It is the active amnesia that allows for the continual erasure and strategic surprise at every racist act or utterance that people “still” act this way.

In Curtis’s words:

Pardon me, brother, while you stand in your glory

I know you won’t mind if I tell the whole story.

Pardon me, brother, I know we’ve come a long, long way

But let us not be so satisfied, for tomorrow can be an even brighter day.

The Ideology of “Progress”

16 Apr

As part of my research for a new project on collaborations between poets and musicians, I have been taking saxophone lessons. In particular, I want to avoid making generalities about improvisation, so I’m learning how to develop an approach to jazz improvisation, which requires learning the basic idiom of modern (that is, post-bebop) saxophone. It’s humbling, but I am making progress.

Progress, to the degree that learning the bebop idiom means for now actively selecting against other approaches and idioms, is fundamentally conservative. I think in broader terms conservatism most profoundly names an unwillingness or inability to see one’s own present living conditions and the possible futures (including national and racial particularity) as accidental, contingent, or anything other than ideal. One progresses to the degree that one develops more of a particular worldview and actively selects against others. That selection can harden, and those other life worlds and desires can simply come to seem mistaken.

If this definition is correct–I’m confident of it in matters of cultural production, but haven’t thought it through very carefully in other domains–then one should not be so surprised when the “liberal” or “progressive” commenter says something obscene, which usually amounts to actively selecting against other people–women, non-whites, queer or disabled people most often–who do not neatly fit a narrative of national development.

The rhetoric of progress covers over the fundamentally conservative processes it names. I’m thinking of the concern James Baldwin rights about in The Fire Next Time that black people fear they are integrating into a burning house, or the concern Du Bois named before him:

He [the Negro American] simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spitupon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

And because I have written about Parks’ Venus, I keep thinking about a moment of self-congratulation among the Chorus of the Court:

[I]t is very much to the credit of our great country

that even a female Hottentot can find a court to review her status.





Especially with regard to race, the rhetoric of race is at once an apology and a demand to forget, to give credit to “our great country” to which the racial other still has little legitimate claim at the level of its self-mythography. At the same time, “progress” is a low bar given that history. In Venus, the Venus (based on Saartjie Baartman) is no longer displayed as a non-human oddity when she faces the court for indecency, but she is not free. The play reminds us “The year was 1810, three years after the Bill for the Abolition of the Salve-Trade has been passed in Parliament. Among protests and denials, horror and fascination the show went on.” The show The Negro Resurrectionist mentions is the display of The Venus, but also chattel slavery.

“The show goes on” is probably a more accurate name for “progress,” though that’s not what people mean. Yes, this country no longer allows the sale of human beings as chattel.  It is no longer legal to rape an enslaved woman then sell your child. Black men and women are no longer lynched and burned alive for trivial offenses like making eye contact. Now, when a man is late coming home, one doesn’t assume he’s been lynched. Neighbors burn fewer crosses on black lawns. No more separate entrances or special sections on buses and trains where the blacks are allowed to sit.

I wanted to write that black families are safe from being split for profit, but the for-profit prison industry dampens my optimism. That black boy or girl is probably safe from lynching, but will he or she be suspended more often? Will the poorer performance resulting from such discontinuities in education lead “even” liberals and “progressives” to draw on bunk science linking race and intelligence? Will s/he be presumed criminal and murdered by a vigilante like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, and too many others to name? Will that black girl or boy appear to all as a child? Will their childhood be celebrated as other childhoods are in this country?

Given our history, we should not celebrate progress, or we should not only celebrate it. We must honor those who have pushed for the few grudging changes we’ve seen, but we must never forget that given where this country, and modernity itself began, it is hard to imagine it being worse. “Civilized” countries have used the others it created (in the process creating themselves as nations) as relatively cheap labor to drive down labor costs for others. The question is not just how far “we” have come, but who is implied and actively excluded from that we. What more still needs to be done.

For those who might point to the election of Barack Obama as an emblem that the preceding is insufficiently optimistic, his election is indeed significant, and we are right to note its significance, even as we must not be mistaken about what it signifies. Barack Obama is, by the standards of this country, supremely well-positioned to be successful. Excellent school pedigree, ambitious, handsome, Christian, married with two beautiful children. Like Johnson, and unlike Bush, he didn’t come from money, but worked and moved from one class position to another: he is the very paragon of U.S. self-perception. If he were not elected, that would mean that a majority of Americans let their color prejudices cloud their judgment. Obama is everything that a certain conservative nationalist view appreciates: his dress, his pedigree, his manner of speech, his ideology and his income all reveal a real embrace of the national myth, which he thus embodies. This is a “nation of immigrants” where “anyone” who “works hard and plays by the rules” can succeed, even to the point of being the President.

This is a notion of progress that, at its core, is fundamentally conservative: there’s a very narrow range of imaginative possibility and acceptable development. Thus, the controversy is always will he use drones against American citizens or will the illegal NSA dragnet affect American citizens—there is insufficient care for those others, required by modernity, for whom bombing or violation is an important step in their becoming more like Americans. Perhaps his actions would be more vigorously protested if he didn’t fit so perfectly a larger, more important narrative of progress. Certainly he would if, as many continue to fear, he decided to disarm whites, or deal with the ignorant protestors at Bundy Ranch as one might expect the government to (especially if they were black, or non-white). But though we call them “conservative” what is at stake in a sense is no less than control of the national narrative.

Learning about that story, I remarked on twitter that vigilantism is baked into the very soul of a country founded on the violent expropriation from those deemed non-human, meaning the Negro, invented as a category of constitutive exclusion from humanity, and the indigenous populations deemed not irrational, but not rational either. I would add that vigilantism also follows from the narratives by which these acts of originary violence continue to be justified. Vigilantism follows from the continued production of the non-human as the foil to national projects.

What remains is what I heard Gayatri Spivak call the non-coercive rearrangement of our desires to produce a will for justice that encompasses the world. More simply, let us recall the words Curtis Mayfield sang: “we can be freer still,” we can imagine a more capacious “we” located somewhere outside the conservative enclosure of our fetishes of progress.

On “Culture” as Racecraft

11 Apr

I keep returning to the perennial interest among liberals and conservatives, black and white, in the supposed ills of black culture. It seems important to see the work–ideological and material–such framing of the problem does. I think Karen and Barbara Fields’ notion of “racecraft,” related to witchcraft insofar as it promotes mystical explanations (the witches made the crops fail) and can quickly turn to scapegoating, while obscuring other, larger concerns.

In an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barbara Fields defines racecraft (around 39:30) as

the process by which racism becomes race. You don’t start with a perception of people being different, you start with racism which is a practice and an ideology out of which race emerges. You learn to recognize people as belonging to a race because you have been in the rituals of racism with them.

In her book, co-authored with Karen E. Fields, they define racecraft in slightly different terms:

Distinct from race and racism, racecraft does not refer to groups or to ideas about groups’ traits, however odd both may appear to be close-up. It refers instead to mental terrain and to pervasive belief. Like physical terrain, racecraft exists objectively; it has topographical features that Americans regularly navigate, and we cannot readily stop traversing it. […] The action and imagining are collective yet individual, day-to-day yet historical, and consequential even though nested in mundane routine. The action and imagining emerge as part of moment-to-moment practicality….(18-19)

Yet later, again stressing the relation of their coinage to the English witchcraft, “racecraft” is:

one among a complex system of beliefs, also with combined moral and cognitive content, that presuppose invisible, spiritual qualities underlying, and continually acting upon, the material realm of beings and events. […] Marking the terms [“racecraft” and “witchcraft”] linguistically with -craft announces that the workings of those phenomena are not open to objective or experimental demonstration, that is to say, by anyone, anywhere, and independent of doing or believing.

I’m just starting to work my way through Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, and so far I recommend it highly, especially in light of recent and perennial discussions of black culture. Here I just want to offer a couple points.

I have increasingly come to think that the language of “achievement gap” and the question “what can we do to encourage black success” is wrong. Or, rather, they assume too much and artificially limit the kinds of solutions we can consider. Too often, that “achievement gap” seems like one of Fields’s “topographical features” that has no origin that one must simply navigate, like sinkhole or potholes in the spring. As the road is something created by cooperative human effort, so to is the “achievement gap.” And as the pothole can be fixed with cooperative effort, so to can the “achievement gap.”

To believe that there is something inherently deficient in “black culture” is the very definition of racism. To refer to an African American culture that is somehow distinct from a broader American culture is the work of racecraft, the rhetorical work of explaining away systemic issues as if they had mysterious, even supernatural roots. As Lester Spence points out in a recent post, there is no shortage of unheroic hard work among black people. Anyone who has lived among the poor has seen them to be among the most stoically hardworking, uncomplaining segments of the population. The idea of the “lazy poor” has its origins in the construction and administration of racial and colonial logic from the English disdain for the Irish to the Western view of the Africans.

Asking how we increase black achievement obscures too much. First one would have to instill in students the sense that they can achieve, that all their efforts will be rewarded and worthwhile. Simply class analysis or instilling “middle class values” (as if these are wholly foreign to African Americans or the poor) won’t do much if there’s no path to the middle class. And the black middle class, as many scholars have noted, has been and continues to be much more precarious. We know that even following middle class paths have different outcomes for African Americans, and that there is wealth inequality between blacks and whites, in addition to income inequality. This is a matter of policy, implicit biases, everyday practices that have historical origins: in a word, of racecraft.

So, the first step to addressing black culture might be to treat it as a set of responses and practices developed in the specific context of racism, and race-based domination that is both everyday and historical, then ask how we defeat that. This is not a matter of “beating the odds” as President Obama said when he announced his Brothers and Keepers initiative. And it is not a matter of defeating “Cousin Pookie,” a disgraceful minstrel caricature if ever there was one (a combination of Zip Coon and Sambo). A crude stereotype should not be the person the President of the United States invokes to represent black people. To solve unemployment in the inner cities create meaningful, well-paying jobs. Promote labor organization and meaningful oversight. Nothing in “black culture” has lead to “achievement gaps” or to  African Americans being 9 percent of the global prison population. The perception of African Americans as especially prone to violence has done that work. There is nothing wrong with black culture that destroying racist underpinnings that produce and animate racial distinction would not fix.