Saturday, May 9, 2015

One Righteous, Crazy Whiteboy

Today, May 9, is the birthday of John Brown (1800-1859), quite possibly my favorite whiteboy of all time. He led a failed slave rebellion at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, and was captured, and hanged by the U.S. government. He had participated in several guerrilla wars against slaveholders and their forces, especially after they killed abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy. He believed he was charged by god to start a holy war to end slavery, and he dedicated his life to this effort. He ended up a martyr, but not before taking a whole bunch of slavers with him. In another parlance, he was a mujahid who was about his jihad. And we will never forget him.

I remember every grade school and high school teacher I ever had who covered the topic of John Brown's rebellion felt the need to hint in some way that Brown was mentally ill. I always found it interesting that they all said that, almost as though it was in some sort of script, but it never really phased me too much. I was like, "Shit, if 'crazy' is what it takes to do what he did, sign me the fuck up!" To me, the teachers and the school itself were mentally ill because they didn't see humans as humans if we are Black. They were always threatening the Black boys and girls with suspension or worse for the slightest things. At the time I was lucky enough to dodge such punitive teachers. Today, I might not have such luck. They might even have arrested me for "disobedience" and got me in that system that turns so many of us into slaves of the state. Don't get me wrong. I am a slave now, as are all us Black folks. But on the outside, I can fight a very different fight.

As I grew, I came to understand that the proper study of "crazy" is a forbidden art in the United States. "Crazy" is the province mostly of professional psychiatrists, who are like trained police, paid by insurance companies to medicate us into compliance or patch up the systemic contradictions that manifest as personal crises like psychic breakdowns, and to do it all in 10 sessions or less. Psychiatrists are a special brand of religious dogmatist who fortify their charges to "trust and obey" not a righteous god who moves and moves with something called history and justice, but, instead, the Order of Things. This field of study is designed to contain "crazy," keep it under wraps and safe for the masters of capitalism to continue their work of exploiting and enslaving. It limits the sparks of "crazy" to bourgeois arts and entertainment and otherwise the prison. The only other hope of an oppressive structure is to discipline people into distancing themselves from "crazy." Psychiatrists are supposed to be the end limits of that disciplining, when you can no longer resist your own resistance to the Order of Things. Instead of acting on that resistance, you are to seek them out so they can label it as "crazy"-- their word for sin.

It is possible, however, to engage with "crazy." It receives no sanction from the state and insurance companies. And it is more closely aligned with the arts and creative practices that are in an intimate and friendly dialog with the concerns of everyday people, folks who are antagonistic to the bourgeoisie and the antiblack power structure. It consists primarily of close and careful listening to one another without judgment or prescriptions, except to rest more, exercise, eat what your body needs, and to have fun. When medicine is needed, it is used, but it doesn't harness your pain to the economic profit motive. And to be healed is not to be without any paint, but to understand where one's pain is ultimately coming from, which means, partly, to be critical of the structure in which one was formed.

Healing requires, in the words of Fanon, "a change in the social structure," something that will inevitably change you, too. That is because every human is a "subject." A subject is not just how you identify yourself, but also how the structure you live in grows and makes you as a total person, including your body, voice, thought patterns, identity, and position within a social order that came before you and is massively bigger than your individual self in how it shapes the present order. Your subjectivity is not a prison, but it cannot be changed by changes in the way you act and dress and speak if other things don't change too. You have to change the social order that created you as it is creating you anew. You can't go there by yourself. You need collective action against a structure so massive it can crush you. The structure grounds our subjectivities. But, like our subjectivities, it contains cracks, breaks. And we have to be ready to build as we break. That takes a certain kind of crazy.

So maybe John Brown was that certain kind of "crazy" or at least conversant with it. Maybe you have to be a certain kind of "crazy" to do this, or at least in conversation with whatever lies beyond that horizon of what's "possible" or even thinkable. After all, ethics is only possible for those who are capable of great change, because, unlike straightforward moral rules, ethics must be figured out in the moment based on simple principles. To track a structure like the racial enslavement of Black people that is so old it no longer appears to be a temporary event but seems to be "the way it is" is to be a fish that sees the water it's swimming in. But we have to have that kind of insight to stare down and fight against a structure like slavery. It also takes the political imagination to see that something better than the narrow now is possible and to throw oneself into the fight to bring down the structure that oppresses, tortures, rapes, enslaves, and kills. And it requires the discipline to make oneself ready for how protracted a struggle that will be. It also requires the ethical compass to understand that struggling for what is right has a trajectory, a long arc toward a horizon one may never see but, through sustaining faith, knows is there. One has to be a certain kind of subject to be at peace with the certainty of change, the instability of the present, the likelihood that one will die, often violently, before seeing the outcome of one's most sincere jihad. In struggle, we need to develop these capacities. And it may well be that these capacities only exist without the chain of fear within a certain kind of crazy, a certain subjectivity. We would then need to go about cultivating and sustaining such subjectivities in each other and allowing each other to cultivate and sustain such subjectivities in ourselves. This is leadership.
Dangerfield Newby, one of John Brown's comrades, and the first of them to be martyred at Harper's Ferry, Va., on October 17, 1859

For a white man to arm Black people and fight side by side with them in the time he lived was remarkable, and a model to all allies whose sincerest desire is to free all people. To see through the gradualism of white pacifists and line up the U.S. institution of slavery in one's sites requires an incisive mind that is attuned to history. Seeing the ways that slavery operated in the United States as a network of connected nodes, each of which must be taken offline in order to induce a crisis at a critical moment in time requires a high level of political sophistication. This man right here is a benchmark for a "white ally." These fools today like Peggy McIntosh and Tim Wise who talk about symbolically surrendering their white skin privilege and symbolically putting down their "invisible knapsacks" of whiteness, they can miss me with that shit. Are you ready to kill or be killed rebelling against the enslavement that enables your very freedom?

John Brown, motherfuckers. One righteous, crazy whiteboy.

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