Thursday, March 18, 2010

An email unsent to a friend

This is an email that has been sitting in my Drafts box for months now. I ended up not sending it in response to my friend because I didn't want to damage our friendship.

We are in the privileged position in academia to think about blackness as a site of ontological negation, whereas other black people do not do so or cannot afford to do so except in really candid moments. What dynamics does this privilege and this disparity, combined with the particular project of researching antiblackness, introduce into relationships? How do we deal with the conservative and analogizing impulses on which friendship is built? Self acceptance is both a refusal to radically challenge certain elements of the status quo in oneself AND also fundamentally necessary to forming any relationship with other people. Analogic impulses are essential to empathy, but, with whom can we identify absent these impulses? Black folks? There are very few of us in academia, and I venture to say that many are not into viewing themselves as fungible objects.

Anyway, I'm sharing this response to a friend-- a response I never sent. I thought it might be helpful to think through how the labor of thinking about blackness as a site of ontological negation threatens, deepens, frames, reverses, interrupts the personal politics of friendships, relationships, and family.

In response to:
> Please view and distribute widely.
>> I decided to forward this video. It is something all young people of today
>> should see. They have no idea what the past and the struggles of the past
>> were all about. Just watch this, is so full of the truth!
>> Feel free to pass along to those you think can help us make a difference in
>> our community as well as could benefit from this.

Hey, my friend.
hmm...thought provoking video. Many reactions to it. Thank you for sharing it.

I'm not sure I'd show it to young people I used to teach in LA schools, however, because it still ends up blaming black people-- in this case, for not taking individual responsibility for being close enough to Jesus. That's not what I want my students to learn, and yet that is implicitly how it explains our present condition. It's what Pat Robertson did when he said that Haitians are dying by the tens of thousands because they "signed a pact to the devil" in order to win the Haitian Revolution in 1804. (

Also, as a historian, I'm bothered by its early use of images of dreadlocked Jesus as the way that Africans "always had their god." Christianity was one of the modes through which blacks were made to "hate their black souls" and aspire to be white. It writes African animist faiths and Islam wholly out of the picture (not that those faiths weren't/aren't antiblack). But Christianity has been/is particularly antiblack and has consciously and unconsciously encouraged us to be so as well by depicting Satan as a "Dark Lord," even as it has acknowledged the error of explicitly depicting Jesus as Aryan.

(Check this article out:

Finally, there's so much that is right about the analysis that this sets up. It's great that it critiques the ways blacks have adopted the various names (especially "nigger" and "nigga") we have been given and have accepted. Basketball and the hip-hop industry, and the crabs-in-a-barrel mentality in the classroom and even the critique of gross materialism-- these are all on point.

But its "Lord of Darkness" has his timeline wrong. Black use of the term "nigger" to refer to other blacks is not a new thing, nor is it wholly separate from our acceptance of the other names we have accepted (like Ricks) or from the ways we are continually remade as black when white people do what they do. In other words, the history this filmmaker asks us to teach our children says that in the beginning, there were Africans who were kings and queens, then there was slavery when white people abused black people who stood meekly by, and then, somewhere around Richard Pryor's time, whites stopped doing it and black people took over and started doing it to themselves. Blacks today, for this filmmaker, are simply damaged goods who are doing it to themselves and the damage has been done. It is not done. The damaging continues. This very video participates in that damaging.

In line with the neoliberal doctrines that take oppression out of context (history, politics, etc) and place it squarely on the shoulders of the individual (as if that was how the oppression got there in the first place), this video operates schizophrenically by at once acknowledging that America was the devil's idea (the BEST part of this video, near the beginning) and then saying that blacks' blaming of whites and environment is counterproductive. Huh?

While it's true that blame is not a sustainable strategy, it is also true that no black politics can begin without acknowledging frankly and painfully the ways that whiteness and blackness remain linked as a damaging relationship. That is, in fact, all that they are. What would whiteness be if blackness wasn't a position of degradation? Whiteness is not a culture by any definition I know. Conversely, what would blackness be if whiteness wasn't a position of value and life? Blacks have many cultures-- southern US, Haitian, French, Ethiopian, Ghanaian, etc.

It's a bit too forgiving of the ways white power and antiblackness continues to operate. What it should do is work to politicize the people it calls degraded. It's not doing that.

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