A week or so ago, I had a debate with my siblings. It started off as typical group-chat fare: I ask a difficult question, with an interest in seeing how people think about the question, rather than coming up with a solution. My question was: “Do y’all think we were just ‘chilling’ in Africa before the Europeans arrived?” Immediately, my eldest brother was suspicious:
Jason: ppl had civilizations, empires, villages, cities. im not sure what you are looking for
My question, which I did not intend to be provocative but invariably was, was more rooted in the construction of history — its inherently fictitious nature — than in documenting a set of historical truths. By outlining the fictions of history, I mean to dispel the pretense to truth that makes certain fictions viable as histories and bars others from consideration as myths, legends or mere stories. In this case, I am questioning the common history of blackness endemic to a particular brand of post-Négritude thinkers, call them hoteps or neo-Négritudists or Afrocentrists. I am not interested in telling you that Molefi Kete Asante is wrong because I don’t think he is anymore wrong than Orlando Patterson or David Brion Davis. Rather, historians and philosophers of history endeavor to narrativize history, to make past events make sense within a continuity, and to explain what had hitherto remained inexplicable. Once you acknowledge that all history is fiction, you are able to ask an entirely new set of questions that read to those who accept history-as-fact as little more than idle provocation. As I’ve said to friends in passing, the critic is ultimately a mad person. But I’ll save this for another post.
From there, the conversation took a number of turns. At first, I began to question the black royalty discourse.
Xavier: I’m fascinated with the ‘descendants of Egypt’ hypothesis, if only because I wanna know why these men tried to ground blackness in ancient Egyptian empire. Its not that the ancient egyptians weren’t black… rather, I wonder why it matters to people that these people were black
My main issue here is with the liberal uses of humanism, disguised in everyday speech as the knee-jerk reaction to root the spoiled black subject in a historical institution of human-making : namely, empire. Egypt was an empire, perhaps the prototypical empire for the West. The Romans modeled their civilization after the Greeks, who borrowed heavily from the Egyptians after all. Thus, the truism ‘the Ancient Egyptians invented civilization’ rests easily on our tongues. To the Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks were but olive-eating, riverless bumpkins devoid of culture, squatting on the fringes of the known world. As I said in the text, I have no interest in disproving the fact that Egyptians were black (a somewhat absurd claim, as this was before there was such an idea as race as we know it now). My interests lie, however, in the meaningfulness of their before-the-letter blackness for black people in the now.
Years ago, I had started to write a piece on the black royalty discourse, but ultimately scrapped it. My angle was too sharp and critical, despite lacking a primary object to truly think with. Since then, other people have brought up this point more eloquently than I could have in 2018, and thus its not worth rehashing outside of this lone point: humanism is often an imperial concept. To justify the conquest of a people or continent, to justify the displacement and enslavement of an entire civilization, one must decivilize or animalize them. Race is a process of bestialization, of transforming unmarked ‘man’ into something merely vestibular to European, Western, logocentric, capital-M Man. Race invents the primitive in the same way that it invents the civilized subject, the colonizer, the settler. The originary bestialization of Africans into blacks set the standard for the black person as disposable refuse, diversity capital, Gold Medalist, detained migrant #542332, black woman at the podium and reality TV star. To disregard this is to fall into the trap of a delimiting humanism. Humanity is never as spacious as we think it is.
It has taken me several years of studying and thinking to get to this lofty point in my intellectual trajectory. I have suspended my belief in all inherently natural forms of human difference and divested myself from the project of the human. One day, I will write more clearly about what I mean by ‘the project of the human,’ as I am still in the process of feeling my way through this theoretical landmine. But I will say this: I am distrustful of the compulsion to claim the humanity of subjects denied their humanity and who are only in the predicament of needing to claim and proclaim their humanity because of its historical disavowal, if only because such nominal gestures of restoration never accomplish the undoing of the world that robbed them/us of their/our humanity in the first place. This reparative justice of claiming that ‘enslaved people were people’ does not free them from their bondage, does not delegitimize the legal system that kept them the property of another human being, does not unname as slaves within the historical time in which they lived and continues to disguise them as once-living corpses in the now. The liberal humanizing gesture does not unburden the beast of burden that has been the black person in an antiblack world.
To speak with this kind of frankness about sensitive issues risks being misinterpreted. I do not doubt that, during the twists and turns of this conversation which spanned several days, my siblings struggled to make sense of my political position. Being glib and chewing my words, of course, doesn’t help. At one point, when the conversation’s question pivoted to “do you think black people are ashamed of their enslaved ancestors?” I asked a rather poorly framed follow-up question.
Xavier: What’s so bad about slavery?
Amanda: Can you rephrase that?
Xavier: Are black Americans ashamed of their ancestors having been slaves?
Amanda: I don’t know if it’s shame. It’s just not a source of pride for many
Amanda: If you are trying to tap into your Black pride, slavery isn’t usually the default
Xavier: But why?
“What’s so bad about slavery?” A wild question, an impossible question. My brother and a family friend (virtually another older brother of mine) took pause at this question, considering it one of the most bizarre questions ever raised in the chat. I apologized later for poorly wording it, but in hindsight I don’t think the question is so inflammatory. What might immediately jump out to us by rephrasing this question as a statement (“slavery wasn’t so bad”) is not actually what the question / questioner is asking. Rather than expressing my allegiance to a Neo-Confederate nostalgia for empire, I ask whether or not black people in the now can live with the fact that slavery is (part of) our origin story. Is this so shameful, so unbearable to recognize? That one’s being-here is attached to our ancestors’ compulsory being-for-others?
To the family friend, there is no shame towards ancestry. He takes pride in knowing where his African ancestors came from, from knowing the tribes and acknowledging the blood that flows through his veins roots him and his in Africa, that everdark, ancestral land-before. I have no interest in severing his reconstructed, blood relationship to Africa, but I do wonder what kinds of answers that provides him. Can we know the names of those people who provided the genetic material for his existence? Can we know what their hobbies were, the names of their loved ones, their favorite foods? No, and this was the case for most people in the 19th century, let alone the centuries before it. But the nature of the silhouetting of his ancestors within the historical archive are conditioned by their captivity — we could not know about them as people if we wanted to, because they weren’t considered people during their day, were barred from the social accoutrements of personhood during their lives. Whatever they enjoyed, the small things that brought some levity to their days, was anathema to the world that kept them as slaves and treated them as goods. All we have, in fact, is the blood that courses through our veins. A pedigree without names, without faces.
The humanistic urge in slavery studies seems to respond to a set of originally dehumanizing images of the slave in the Western imagination. The concept of the human-cow is unnerving, and no one in their right mind could uncritically accept that their ancestors were bought and sold like bolts of cloth or bales of hay. Yet, we still feel the impact and the weight of this originary equivalence between black people and commodities. Whether its the ‘market’ of athletic drafts or new extractive aesthetics of blackfishing, the black person is not only a coveted laboring body endowed with mythic endurance, sexual prowess and an innate talent for drudgery, but also a coveted object, a thing to be desired, kept, ogled, prodded, inspected, touched, stroked, fucked and enjoyed. What makes the desirable object undesirable is of course the ‘thing’ that separates it from other objects: its blackness, its permissible nonbeing. The humanistic impulse wills us to “kill the Negro, save the man,” a phrasing that originally animated the white-supremacist project of Westernizing indigenous Americans. Both are rooted in an evangelical, scientific form of humanism. Both are predicated on the banishing of the marker of difference (blackness/indigineity) as in the way of progress. The black liberal humanist who feels this would likely not agree with me analogizing them to the man who invented the model for the Indian boarding school, those terrible camps of ethnic cleansing and ‘development,’ but ultimately the gesture, the prelogical drive is the same. What legitimizes the claim to the slave’s nonbeing is their blackness; to free the captive and maintain blackness would mean rewriting the script of what blackness means, would mean severing it from slaveness as permissible nonhumanity. Rather than a vestibular form of the human, building the link between man and ape, blackness within liberal humanism becomes ‘another human genre,’ maintaining therein all of the baggage of its prior meaning, now in a suspended and disarticulated state. An inarticulate form of nonbeing is still a form of nonbeing, nonetheless. The humanizing urge to free the black person from slaveness, to restore the slave to the human, will never yield the results we want.
Black people are human, of course. But we (read: humans) do not treat them as humans. Humanists endeavor to restore humanity to the black person and thus create a truly level terrain of social relations. Antihumanists disavow the human as a project and argue for the merits of a black nonhumanity or inhumanity. I am somewhere in the middle. I am too suspicious of the historical fictions that undergird racemaking in the West to subscribe to an uncritical concept of the human OR to a transhistorical notion of blackness predating Western contact. For this, I blame my tenuous and complicated relationship with the sciences that have installed in me a universal and authoritarian grammar of existence, a tenet of which is the universality of the human. Yet, I am also wary of the kinds of political maneuver that are made possible in such glib statements as “black people are not human.” I am still too much of a pagan to willingly deny my ancestors something I know they fought tooth and nail to prove to their masters as well as to themselves. So I teeter on this fence of posthumanism, ever-nervous of falling over into nihilistic despair or the bad-faith liberalism of a racial humanism.
By the end of the conversation, I seemed to have convinced my siblings of my position. Rather than being on one end of the imagined political spectrum of conservative and liberal, sleep and woke, I hover above it in my realm of unhelpful and confusing abstraction. Nothing reminds me of the meaningless insularity of scholarship like trying to express abstract academic ideas to people who live imminently in the world. In my work, I take people’s fictions, their counter-histories and antihistories, as evidence of a religious, rather than logical, attempt at historical meaning-making. I want to know why you believe what you know, rather than question whether what you know is true or false. It does not matter to Haile Gerima that most enslaved people actually did not revolt, for this is not the way he prefers to read history. Slaves who did not revolt were ‘happy slaves,’ a lie pushed forward by the plantation school of thinking. From the individual plots on which the slaves lived, farmed, raised their children and were eventually buried, the story was one of everlasting rebellion and resistance. What’s the use in telling him that this wasn’t historically true, that most quietly endured their suffering, knowing that their lives could be extinguished for pleasure anyways, let alone for so grave a transgression as marronnage? Is the historical narrative for some reason a more believable fiction than Gerima’s counter-narrative, his self-myth? Whom does empiricism serve? Certainly not the slave!
It doesn’t matter if his counter-history was false, but it matters that he believes in it, that he must believe in it because the dominant historical narrative — that of the ‘plantation school’ — is ultimately disenchanting and dehumanizing. Slaves in Gerima’s film Sankofa must rebel against unfair and hostile treatment: of course, what right-minded human wouldn’t?
[this is part one of a series of posts on methodology]
Image: Tongue Fashion by Wilfredo Lam