Friday, November 24, 2017

Stack of Three Books

On November 7, 2010, almost six years to the day before america was made "great again," I wrote this down. In future posts, I will return to these authors:

A stack of three books by Saidiya Hartman (Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th-Century America), Ronald Judy [(Dis)forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular], and Hortense J. Spillers (Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture) sit next to the computer on which I type this missive. Three towering giants of my past three years of thought stack perilously on the edge of my nightstand/footlocker. This computer is where I write their thoughts and my thoughts out as I understand them. They each write in different ways such inscrutable, horrible thoughts. And yet, they are thoughts that everyone knows. Everyone black knows them intimately, because not to know them is to think oneself human (white), and to set oneself up for lifelong frustration when one tries to have that irresolvable conversation with one's colleagues, bosses, teachers, lovers, family members, children, and leaders. They explain why this conversation doesn't go anywhere, and, by implication, why we will have to look beyond mere conversation. Blacks and nonblacks must read these difficult thoughts (if not these specific texts) because we need new conversations about what it means to be ethical. One can no longer be a well-intentioned liberal about race once one knows these things. Paying taxes, marking the ballot, and working the 8-5 all become different modes of pulling the trigger in an incomplete genocide. We can't be post-race until Modernity is dead and buried. And nobody wants to be that kind of free because they literally can’t imagine how the present could be any different from what it is.

The three perch on the edge of the table, ready to jump because they contain such unthinkable thoughts that they are themselves mad. To oversimplify what these writers say risks mistaking the map for the journey or the messenger for the message, but risk it I must. 

Judy basically says that from the founding moments of the academy, what we mean by "academic integrity" has been defined as anything that is NOT the perceived opposite of "academic integrity"--Africa and "the negro." Black studies (by whatever name) inherently "disforms" the western canon. The meaning of this assertion ripples into every other institution where blackness or black bodies might show up.

Hartman says that the Enlightenment-era concepts we use to understand ourselves as human--freedom, individual rights, community, etc.-- extend only conditionally to black Americans. For example, the term "slave rape," Hartman points out, is an oxymoron. There was no such thing. Instead, it was a legitimate ”use of property" and it was totally legit. To summarize Hartman, I picture Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration in his parlor with his slaves working just outside the window. That's the defining moment of America. That is America now. This book, Hartman says, is a “history of the present.”

Hortense Spillers’ essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” reads the concepts that give meaning to the notion of "gender" in documents of the transatlantic slave trade of the 15th through 19th century and the 1965 The Negro Family: The Case for National Action by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. For the captive African female, she writes, "slavery outrages motherhood." In other words, in the course of the violence that it took to convert various ethnic groups of Africans into "blacks," "we lose at least gender,” the capacity to make meaning of our own bodies, the capacity to pass meaning on to other bodies. The ongoing violence of the Middle Passage makes it so we can’t make meaning of the most basic things we think we are so sure of: our bodies are not bodies but rather “flesh” augmented with “sexual stuff” for the master’s uses, and our families are not affirmed as families but rather as “pathologies.” We can’t even name ourselves and have those names stick.

These three authors are special because they point out blackness is not fundamentally defined as an oppressed status. Blackness is fungibility. Why is this important to think or write about? Well, what do we rely on now to construct arguments about why this or that politics is ethical or unethical? We use philosophical frameworks derived from early Modernity, the moment when the west was understanding itself as all the things we now associate with the west. Humans can't comprehend things based on some vague notion of inherent qualities. They can only understand things in opposition to something else. (Yellow is not green, not blue, not purple, etc.) 

Commodity-ness. Cargo-ness. Blackness. Against that, and all that it signifies, is the only way whiteness/humanness can understand itself AS white, as "human"-- as Free. It IS the only way. (Not simply it WAS the only way way back when.)

Why are these by my bedside? They are by my bedside because they comfort me by reminding me that I am indeed seeing the things I think I'm seeing just before I call myself crazy. They remind me that, indeed, I should not be comfortable with the world because the world (as humans experience it) was never meant to contain blacks. Blacks were always to remain "outside our world." But I am black. And I am human. And I am in the world but not of it. So these three also make me uncomfortable. In a moment I will take them and tuck them away on my bookshelf. But they always seem to find their way back. Why? Because it's not as though this stuff is their fault. They're writing about something that hurts them, that hurts all of us.

I'll say this: If anyone else has these three books by their bedsides, they think often about unspeakable things-- day in, day out. I can't even remember why I pulled them from the shelf and why they are here instead of on the shelf. I guess I wanted them close by. The Indigo Girls said that Virginia Woolf's Diary and A Room of One's Own let them know "I'm alright." The slim pages of the three authors who loom at my bedside remind me that I'm not alright, that nothing is alright. Not now. Not until

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