When de Saints: African American Historicity and the Pursuit of Justice (Notes and rough drafts)
© Rights Reserved: Richard J Tilley
Mishnah Qiddushin 3 outlines that a mamzer may achieve his freedom if his parents are sold into slavery and are then freed, freeing him into normalized relations with Jewish society with all the rights and privileges thereto. Here, through ancient subjugation one finds a pathway into privileged society.
Emily A. Owens, in her article, “Promise: Sexual Labor and the Space Between Slavery and Freedom” recounts the story of Carmélite, a young woman who in 1851 sought protective custody through imprisonment in order to secure her release from sexual bondage. She had been sold to the owner of a brothel under the legal jurisdiction that an enslaved person sold under such conditions would then be free, though she remained property and was not able to attain manumision and release from sexual servitude. Carmélite remained enslaved due to the terms of her sexual labor, being perceived as responsible for her own disposition and not worthy of attaining freedom.
The words “will become free” inserted a very particular temporality of freedom into the practice of enslaved sexual labor and invoked a history that linked sexual labor to freedom. As Diana Williams writes, the linkage of sexual labor to freedom in the history of African American women focuses on the agency of the women involved, unwittingly producing a narrative “that women of color willingly trapped themselves in a prison of their own making.” (Owens 2017, 181-182)
Narrative maintenance and re-provocation from slave-owners and laws assured the statutes of bondage in perpetuity without even the potential favor and release from grievances that mamzerim might enjoy. Re-victimization was assured through legal means and social convention. There was a systemic relationship of slave codes “linked to interracial intimacies” (Owens 2017, 187). Laws captured racial and sexual violence and reflected the very act of the capture of the individual. The spirit of these laws do not truly change over time, but adapt to new resonances and institute fresh policies that malign and contain rights of an individual and the assurance of personal safety. On more than one occasion I have heard white, southern men state, “I have never owned a slave” as justification to exclude civil expenditures and projects a narrative to rejects the reality that history conserves its forefathers’s interests, both metaphysically and in the pursuit of sustaining alienating powers of influence.
Katherine McKittrick, in her book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and The Cartographies of Struggle, assesses the spatial dynamics of the inter-relational, sustained passage and pathway of Black Women releasing justice-seeking into the intra-spatial dialogue of culture, language, and literature. As we witness in Carmélite’s confinement-story, “marginalization is an experiential geography that highlights ideological confinement and the peripheral place of black gendered bodies” (McKittrick 2006, 55). Whether the Second District Court in New Orleans in 1851 or the urban spread of metropolis-minor in the reflection of segregated swimming pools, the enclosure of sequestered bonds highlights the periphery of in-dormant historicities of freedom-taking actions. Carmélite released the reasonableness of not just her freedom, but all Black women in bondage who were subject to sexual servitude by white, male oppressors. Those men found allies in the laws of disparity and norms of subjugation.
McKittrick’s analysis and exposition takes tenure in opposition to segregated norms. Carmélite’s struggle is central to the locale and heritage of time of space where “Black geographies […] illustrate the ways in which the raced, classed, gendered, and sexualized body is often an indicator of spatial options and the ways in which geography can indicate racialized habitation patterns; they are places and spaces of social, economic, and political denial and resistance” (McKittrick 2006, 7). Where Carmélite is stationed in history, she speaks forth from a great force of plate tectonics of emotive logic that cannot be denied, but by intentional force and willing obtusity of a persistent oleographic of “Virginian Luxuries” that is more often than not, flipped to reveal the dark backside of the linguistic code of spatial authorities over sociospatial bodies.
The determinant factor that unveils Carmélite’s past-centered struggle and McKittrick’s dialogue into a feminized space of approach and unmoved appraisal into the bitter-waters of where previous struggles is the light shown into, not just the distant-now, but the forever-hold on a matrimony of oppression that continues to be taught, continues to be orchestrated, continues to be silenced as though it is naught, and, most importantly, continues to be resisted – resisted with complete composure – from the bell halls to the stomping grounds to the lecturing spaces. There are few more composed spaces than that which Black femininity and expression coincide with a light on a resistance-struggle for peace and alterity of the law.
Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “Critique of Violence,” argues that laws function as violence to protect those in power, stating, “[l]awmaking is power making and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence” (1986, 295). Byung-Chul Han takes to issue some of the reading of Benjamin’s marriage of law and violence in his short text, Topology of Violence. At one point Byung-Chul Han seems to dismiss Benjamin (and Giorgio Agamben) as being relics of a previous age, an age of world wars unprepared for the new world order of organized media, which he perhaps gives too much credit towards as being an indicator of contemporary mass existence. Byung-Chul Han separates law and violence, putting forward that, “[s]heer violence alone is not capable of forming spaces or creating locations. It lacks the space-building force of mediation. Thus is cannot produce a legal space. Only power, not violence, is capable of space building” (2018, 56). Both Walter Benjamin and Byung-Chul Han give consideration to (perhaps measures and degrees of) a pure (unalloyed) violence,….and law, that can be stapled free of the meditations of willful coercion. Where Benjamin sees a marriage of necessity and form, Byung-Chul Han sees an indication of uniqueness
It is, perhaps, not altogether inappropriate to state that Byung-Chul Han perceives of a perversion of the State that has embedded inside it a potentiality, as though it is not tied to slavery and ransom. This romanticism can be the same worldview that looks as though there is the benefit of fond mercy of the Charleston, South Carlina of the early 1800s. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers writes in Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston, that South Carolina had “become something of a haven for free blacks prior to 1820” (2011, 48). Women outnumbered men in those who were able to purchase their freedom. South Carolina demanded that those manumitted must be self-sufficient and not be put in a position to be considered a “burden” on the state. Many Black women were freed as skilled workers. In Charleston County, between 1801 and 1820, among the records of manumission, 62% were female (2011, 48). But Byung-Chul Han would not see the law as an acqaintance to murder, instead, he might instist slavery not be law at all, but a devirsion in time. Still, he cannot argue that it is not the same power that he holds as unique that forces us to separate degrees of freedom and fortitude within the bonds of slavery. If power and law are married it is an indicator of the stationed time and space of violence, which disputes Byung-Chul Han’s dismissal of Benjamin despite Byung-Chul Han’s perceived dissolution of violence through sanctioned spaces of power.
Charleston was among New Orleans, Baltimore, and Washington, DC as the major cities with the highest percentage of a free Black population. More than half of Charleston’s population were women and in 1850 roughly 40% of South Carolina’s free Blacks were living there (Myers 2011, 31). Then “mass hysteria in the midst of [the] reenslavement crisis” came along with the “anti-free black laws that were being advanced in the General Assembly” (Myers 2011, 208). There can be no separation of law and power as united in a tied bond to wed violence with the absolution of power. Free Blacks in Charleston literally petitioned and lobbied those in the community to honor previous standards of the degrees of freedom permitted under state law so that they could avoid losing all the was gained in the slow manumission of some individuals, who in turn purchased and secured an appearance of freedom for others through the measures of the law and social constructs. A law of violence meted out by degrees of force and not subject to Byung-Chul Han’s misinterpretation of Benjamin’s completely separate vision of a “pure,” divine violence that is not orchestrated by the will of power in the hands of men.
With the increase in arrests, free Blacks in Charleston began to flee the South and migrate north. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers writes that by “November of 1860, roughly eight hundred free people of color had left Charleston and headed for Philadelphia with the help of white friends and business associates” (2011, 209). These connections and bonds formed through former slave’s skilled labor, the same that attested to their winning their freedom, arrived as safe-havens for distributed justice in a capitalist hallmark of degrees of worth petitioned by degrees of violence that was made whole through law. This mired law in the accustomed journey of labor and freedom did not resist the ugliest motivations of humanity, but, instead, those motives protected itself. We still perceive of a law that protects us from violence as a higher order principle that delegates transitions of law and order across time boundaries to be perfected and meted into a discourse of freedom.
This discourse is what Byung-Chul Han esteems as a liberator of souls through a law, a pattern of justice, that has a space wrapped outside of time. Though Walter Benjamin saw a little farther into an structuralism of equality that exists by law that protects violence for its own use. Benjamin understood punitive measures of the law as a protectorate of its own institution, not order, but the self-preservation of power: “Its purpose is not to punish the infringement of law but to establish new law. For the exercise of violence over life more than in any other legal act, law reaffirms itself” (1986, 286). This prose, of course, is in reference to the death penalty. What we secure in a society that is orchestrated in such a way to protect demoting some degrees of life over others, some skills more than most, and other fossils of persuasion that force difference and the deterrence of othering is a bond-capitalism that annotates to murder. We only exercise in degrees of its limits, but the law is violence and it is measured by our tolerance.
At her keynote address at the Fourth National NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) Convention, July 17, 1982, which took place at Humboldt State University in California, Angela Davis began her speech discussing Julia Wilder and Maggie Bozeman of Alabama, in the Black Belt. They worked to assist African Americans to get registered to vote. Because of this, they were charged with voter fraud and in January, 1982 were sentenced to four and five years by a White jury, completing the circle of a system designed to restrict African American participation in elections (Davis 1982, 5).
For Angela Davis’s complete 1982 NWSA speech, see here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004176.
Angela Y. Davis demonstrates in her classic text, Women, Race, and Class, that the types of instances of the oppression of civil rights are manifestations of trends. They are trends that were seeded with slavery, on to the rejection of Reconstruction, into Jim Crow, and the struggle for civil rights, from housing and banking restrictions to equal accessiblity in public domains. The American women’s struggle for bodily autonomy, particularly African American women, also followed this trend. The expectation of forced motherhood violently imposed on those women in the bondage of slavery continued the with the struggle for easy access to birth control into the late 20th century and, as can be seen by any citizen with honest motivations, continues as a diligent witness to crimes against humanity in the 21st centurty. “Voluntary motherhood,” Angela Davis writes in her discussion of nineteenth-century feminists, “was considered audacious, outrageous, and outlandish by those who insisted that wives had no right to refuse to satisfy their husbands’ sexual urges” (1983, 202). “Voluntary motherhood” challenged men’s possessive domination over women’s bodies and sought to redress historic impositions where men refused responsibility towards a conduct of moral order. The same refusal of a moral code of conduct imposed limitations of movement and political identification on Julia Wilder and Maggie Bozeman which continues today in the southern states with racist partisan gerrymandering.
There is a comparison to be made between the liberty of movement within political activism and participation and the control over women’s bodies. (M)otherhood has often been the first source of restrictive conquest by the oppressor historically and sociologically. Steps to liberate women’s bodies from the grip of men works to both free women from bondage as well as liberate civil society from dominating oppressive conjunctions of dialects of tribal institutions designed to be a violence that preserves lawmaking. “Free womb” laws in Brazil and Cuba centered on (m)otherhood with the intention of a perceived pragmatic social progress for eventual abolition. Former slaves were able to take families and slavemasters to court to claim guardianship of their own children still in the bondage of ownership to others as historian Camillia Cowling elaborates in detail in her article, “‘As a slave woman and as a mother’: women and the abolition of slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro” (2011). With these first instances of mother’s reunited with their children, social order moves closer to a nurturing entity and away from structural oppression. These bonds still can point the way out of institutionalized inequality through societal and policy shifts that prioritize the family.
We can learn from former trends which direction is needed as well as have within ourselves the ability to envision what peacemakers (opposed to lawmakers) practice as liberating sanctity. Scholar Stephanie Li, in her book, Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women, also conceives of the resistance of motherhood as a location of permanent future gains, writing, “[b]y understanding female resistance within a context that appreciates the enslaved woman’s complex social network, we may begin to conceptualize a form of freedom that works through and within relationships. I term this approach “intra-independence” as it emphasizes the power to choose the preservation of certain relationships over conditions of individual autonomy” (2010, 24). Personal, spiritual, physical, and psychological autonomy brings rest and restoration to communities with histories and lived realities of engineered dominance. Social appraisal, or rather, the arithmetic and science of oppression, has been meted out with deliberate intention. Comparatively, our longing for a way out can be equally strategic. Liberation begins with mothers. Sanctified liberation begins with mother’s autonomy. When we move the direction that attends to those needs and elevates the personal liberties and constructions of “intra-independence” than the violence of lawmaking will give way to the prosperity of peacemaking.
One can hear Sterling A. Brown’s (link), her professor during her time at Howard, influence in the folk architecture in the end of the conclusion to Sherley Anne Williams’s book Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature.
In the realm of literature where Black writers are seeking to give concrete forms to Black experience in this country, to posit and describe in all its varied facets the large controlling images that give philosophers meaning to the facts of ordinary life, to express the archetype which in turn reveals hidden attitudes and experiences, the Black writer is making not new gods, but a new language and mythology. And perhaps by providing Black people with another view of their experience, showing the basic relationships between their own heroes and the rest of society, these writers have provided another facet to the prism of Black mythology. (1972, 229)
Sterling A. Brown thematized mythological crossings, searching for home, in his poem, “Crossing” from the collection, No Hiding Place:
This is not Jordan River
There lies not Canaan
There is still
One more wide river to cross.
This is the Mississippi
And the stars tell us only
That this is not the road.
Locating home as spiritual, as mythological, as a quest for a centenary reproof from dispelled appraisals, Brown specialized in telling the reader that they are still on the road, together, passing over rivers that do not lead home yet. Dr. Valerie Prince’s brilliant book, Burnin’ Down the House: Home in African American Literature, positions home as a quest and an endeavor lived through literature as the African American experience. I took three of Dr. Prince’s classes and got to know her as my adviser. She is just as brilliant in person, consistently, as she is in this book. Dr. Prince initiates her discussion, “[t]he search for justice, opportunity, and liberty that characterized the twentieth century for African Americans can be described as a quest for home” (2005, 1). Dr. Prince continues, “A look back upon the century of African American literature shows that home is ubiquitous and nowhere at the same time” (2005, 2). Home is concrete and just as ever for certain as it is out of grasp. The mythmaking of storytelling is in its own creation a search for home, away from the rebelliousness of substandard demands on our time and attention for market gains and ordinary comforts, should we be so fortunate to have the opportunity. Home is where deliverance plays its key role in the arrival of mercy, justice, and a non-calculated attrition of forced locations.
Toni Morrison’s Home also demonstrates not being at home or truly able to occupy locations of comfort. Cee, having “laughed with wild glee,” being overjoyed by the comfort of a nice bed is warned not to laugh loudly. In a moment that should feel as at least the imitations of the comforts of home, she is told laughing is “frowned on here.” Further, the discussion illustrates the dislocation of home: “Well, remember those daughters I mentioned being away? They’re in a home. They both have great big heads. Cephalitis, I think they call it. Sad for it to happen to even one, but two? Have mercy” (2012 63). Home is transplanted as a place, the very naming of a place, where one occupies outside the home under the duress of illness where being permanently away is called being at (a) home. In Toni Morrison’s short essay, “The Foreigner’s Home,” she remarks on the demands of nativism and imaginary borders, stating, “[t]he spectacle of mass movement draws attention inevitably to the borders, the porous places, the vulnerable points where the concept of home is seen as being menaced by foreigners” (2017, 94). The persistent state of the grandiosity of borders and the possessiveness towards lands is the nature flux from a colonial mapping towards the estates of ownership of land, ownership of peoples, ownership over the established natural productivity of individual labor without the rewards of the release from confinement or liberty to build and have a home. On what land does home locate itself and towards what ends does the maps of persuasion of livelihood find rest from the bars of delayed justice?
Identification of African American Families in Displaced Societal Structures
Comparative memory between family and society can be divergent or equally challenging. When that social structure upholds, historically and presently, barriers to freedom of movement, expression, livelihood, survival, or critical exegesis of life, the borders between the fragments social idioms and closeness of family can become entangled. Often and ontological proximity alleviates the distance the social order forces between the self and others. Feminist researchers have noted that when interviewing African American women, they were given “insider” access to their lives and circumstances, being Black women themselves (Few et. al, 2003, 207). Researchers made a forward, intentional effort to work within the localized cultural drifts of the community to put the subjects at ease. “Cultural competence involves the adaptation of approaches that reflect and respect the values, expectations, and preferences of those who the researcher is engaging,” Few, et al. write in “Sister-to-Sister Talk: Transcending Boundaries and Challenges in Qualitative Research with Black Women” (2003, 208). This speaks to a general unease with those might judge, condemn, or be general outsiders of the group and community. Those who would be viewed as unable to participate in the culture from a lived experience might be thought of as impractical for the occupation of engaging with the community. Insincerity is always easily stopped and always watched for, if not assumed. This speaks not just to researchers, but big media would certainly exploit these relational skills as well.
Ann duCille cites and works from Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson to suggest that the very traditional foundation of the African American family evolved out of sequestered roles inherited from delegations and limitations from slavery (2009). This sense of social cohesion within and about African American families relies a bit on stereotypes about strictly involved Black mothers and disengaged Black fathers if not being dismissive of family units altogether, though it seems unlikely that was deCille’s starkest intention. At least not from a perspective that is dismissive of the cordial units of respect Black families bring into each other. This also functions as a sense of relational skills, that, in this manner, are exploited in the form of social patterns, not meant to exclude or isolate from those that might be deemed outsiders, but to strengthen the bonds of familial love in the face of disparities that are forced on these families. I would argue, unlike that which duCille stemming from Patterson seems to be focused on, it is the larger structural societal infrastructure that has inherited the most from slavery with society having far less plasticity than families, on the far end.
To quote a portion of Michael S. Harper’s poem, “The Militance of a Photograph in the Passbook of a Bantu under Detention,”
His father’s miner’s shoes
stand in puddles of polish,
the black soot baked
into images of brittle torso
an inferno of bullets laid
out in a letter bomb,
the frontispiece of one sergeant-
major blackening his mustache.
These are not the war-weary images of an individual committed to become displaced through an internal need to be broken, but are that which is of an external structural that is broken and being subject to participation in a hymn of sergeant-majors that are more flexible than the limitations imposed upon her or him. Harper writes, “I speak to myself as the woman / riding in the backseat talks / of this day,” denoting not an individual that reflects notions of disparity, but those inside a concrete jungle of disparaging concerns and fimble rhythms where it is the individual who is strong, and not societal structures. Likewise, the researchers of the Few et al. paper find themselves being adroit by pairing with the individuals and not their own isolated socially sanctioned role. Likewise, it is not duCille and Patterson’s identification of the family that is hemmed to displacement, but laws that displace it. It is this image-making that is displaced like “the frontispiece […] blackening his mustache.”
duCille, Ann. “Marriage, Family, and Other ‘Peculiar Institutions’ in African American Literary History.” American Literary History, Vol. 31. No 3, (Fall 2009): 604-617.
ew, April L, et al. “Sister-to-Sister Talk: Transcending Boundaries and Challenges in Qualitative Research with Black Women.” Family Relations, Vol 52, No 3 (July 2003): 205-215.
Representation and Echoes of Exuberant Liberation in the Word “Juba”
In Sandra L. Gilman’s essay, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” she outlines the parameters of representation as an idea and ontological constant. Representations communicate the physics of ideas that either persuade the viewer or reader towards the abscesses of one idea or move less spatially; refrained within the tight, rigid barriers of their preconceived constitution. Representation is sociological, in art and literature, as in social constructs more immediately confronted. Gilman writes,
Specific individual realities are thus given mythic extension through association with the qualities of a class. These realities manifest as icons representing perceived attributes of the class into which the individual has been placed. The myths associated with the class, the myth of difference from the rest of humanity, is thus, to an extent, composed of fragments of the real world, perceived through the ideological bias of the observer. (1986, 223)
The work of art or story or diagram is always already apropos; steady within a class system reinforced with both casual and formal acquaintance with expected societal norms. Beauty, therefore, is not desire, but expectation. Rather, beauty is informed expectation from a cosmogenic dispel that is tied to the cast of an iron welded, still, free moving conductor.
This echo of representation was enforced in North Carolina during occasions of John Kunering, an extravagant Christmas ritual celebrated first by slaves and later freed-persons. Words used to describe John Kunering or John Canoeing have been “indulgence” or “exuberance” or, in the words of Douglas Mac Millan, existing in “the air of gruesome mirth” (1926, 53). Sterling Stuckey cites Dr. James Norcom in his book, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, stating,
The slaves’ pent-up emotion and sorrow and the encouragement from slave masters helped account for the indulgence of many North Carolina slaves in revelry and drink on Christmas and other holidays. “It is to be regretted,” wrote Dr. James Norcom, “that drunkeness is too common on these occasions; but this also is habitually overlooked and never punished, unless it became outrageous or grossly offensive.” Perhaps the recognition of the need for some release for slaves – a recognition of fear and guilt – caused North Carolina whites to encourage John Kunering and a festive air among slaves on the streets of their towns[.]” (2013, 120)
“[F]ear and guilt” may have motivated slave masters as well as a perverse form of entertainment, but this “release” by slaves was not altogether a white construct. “Africanity was demonstrated in mourning song and dance, in the transcendence of the spirit” and within those retained and released emotional outbursts were the secretive songs of heritage and life experience being communicated from one diction to the next within pearls of swine (2013, 122). Sterling Stuckey cites a portion of the lyrics to exemplify what the slavesong’s “monotonous cadence” may have conformed to, which I will cite in full:
My massa am a white man, juba!
Old misses am a lady, juba!
De children am de honey-pods, juba! Juba!
Krismas come but once a year, juba!
Juba! Juba! O, ye juba! (2013, 119)
A classic poem passed down in the oral tradition, from slavery to those who would write it down also includes the much contemplated word, juba.
JUba dis and JUba dat an
JUba killed my YALlow cat, O JUba,
JUba, JUba,, JUba, JUba, JUba. (Ward 1997, 3)
It is clear that classification from representation does not just occur in writing or a diagram or in story form or a drawing. The single word, “juba,” disorients the outside listener as a nonsensical utterance and allows the reinforcement of class standing or biased reading while communicating to the inside group a harrowing sound of emotive sadness, a communal pathos that derides the common antagonist with language he cannot understand. The meta-representation is aware of itself and carries on from one sound to another a shared heritage and common bondage towards language that must be esteemed to the inside listener.
This clarity in the poem marks exuberance to any outside listener while communicating a sadness to those without bias in their listening. Similarly, this bias caused fractions in the Civil War, marking two times this song would be put to use as a national call to freedom; once in slavery, in defeat, and again in the angst of war. The reader can hear this word, this poem, as a rallying cry for freedom in the face of confederate agents thinking themselves supreme according to an order of saints, how they saw their own disposition in the national dialogue against slavery. These shades of nuance are as lived as Major Robert Anderson relocating his troops to Fort Sumter and the livid consequences that fell in the build up to secession (Sinha 2000, 251-254). Formally, more tired saints whisper the causing bind and bond of freedom while those too soon eclipsed echoes fragment the plasticity of the dream of freedom. Plasticity we see in representation, represented in plots of land with fragmented allowances and men determining what is allowed against other humans on that land, through enforced representation and the bias in the circles of their foregone persuasions.
(biblio out of order, but here all the same, these posts are all just notes, not finished)
Gilman, Sandra L. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Ed Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Sinha, Manisha. The Counter-Revolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, 25th Anniversary Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Ward, Jerry W, ed. Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African-American Poetry. New York: Mentor, 1997.
Brown, Sterling A. The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. Evanston: TriQuarterly Books, 1999.
Morrison, Toni. Home. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. Morrison, Toni. The Origins of Others. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.
Prince, Valerie Sweeney. Burnin’ Down the House: Home in African American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Williams, Sherley Anne. Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature. New York: The Dial Press, 1972.
Cowling, Camillia. “ ‘As a Slave woman and as a mother’: Women and the abolition of slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro.” Social History, 36:3, 294-311.
Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Random House, 1981.
Davis, Angela Y. “Women, Race, and Class: An Activists Perspective.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol 10, no 4 (Winter 1982), 5-9.
Li, Stephanie. Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women. New York: Suny Press, 2010.
Benjamin, Walter. “Critique of Violence.” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.
Han, Byung-Chul, Topology of Violence. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2018
Myers, Amrita Chakrabarti. Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and The Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Owens, Emily A. “Promise: Sexual Labor and the Space Between Slavery and Freedom.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 58, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 179-216. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26290899
Tzvetan Todorov and the Path from Behavioralist to Feminist Critiques towards an Educational Model
In Hortense J. Spillers essay, “Notes on an Alternative Model – Neither/Nor,” from Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, she surveys William Faulkner in a study of negation of the Other and gender. Spillers states, “[t]he exterior other in positive identity is, for Faulkner, a female, and in the Faulknerian situation of the female, we gain good insight into the process of gender-making as a special outcome of modes of dominance” (2003, 305). At the heart of Spillers’s context, as with so many other literary critics, is concern with the negation of history, of reality, of gender and race. Ralph Ellison also noted Faulkner’s problematic dualism with African American identity, which combined with the specter of female subjugation, does not outright endorse Faulkner despite notedly being highly influenced by his craft. Ellison offers in “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Mask of Humanity” from The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison that “Faulkner [is] and example of a writer who has confronted Negroes with such mixed motives that he presented them in terms of both the ‘good n*****’ and the ‘bad n*****’ stereotypes, and who yet has explored perhaps more successfully than anyone else, either white or black, certain forms of Negro humanity” ( 1995, 86). Of course, Ellison was a doctrinal universalist and would not utterly push aside what positive embellishment Faulkner could endorse of African American culture and individualism. While feminist criticism would not completely abandon such modes of acknowledgement, there are more axis points from which to critique than style or sociological outcomes of the times, which was disputed in its sense of productivity by James Baldwin.
Case logic is not without its delegation into symbiotic parts. Spillers expands on Faulkner’s two-fold psychoanalytical play of gender and even as an admirer Ellison notes Faulkner’s situational stance on good or bad fitting form. With voluble diction such analysis arises in which the creator is equally at the mercy of the characterizations. Spillers notes Tzvetan Todorov in her ontological-behavioral case study, which I find value in quoting at length:
In his Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov distinguishes three dimensions of the problematics of alterity: (1) the axiological level – “the other is good or bad, I love or do not love him, or ….he is my equal or my inferior (for these is usually no question that I am good that I esteem myself”); (2) the praxeological level – the placing of distance or proximity between oneself and an imagined other – “I embrace the other’s values, I identify myself with him; or else I identify the other with myself, I impose my own image upon him; between submission to the other and the other’s submission, there is also a third term, which is neutrality, or indifference”; (3) the epistemic level – “I know or am ignorant of the other’s identity….of course, there is no absolute here, but an endless gradation between the lower or higher states of knowledge.” (2003, 305)
As stated above, Ellison clearly notes the axiological level while Spillers contrasts the latter half of the praxeological level from the context of feminist scholarship. Of course, both are concerned with the epistemic level. Elsewhere in Conquest of America, Todorov comments on the praxeological imposition of religion that “to impose one’s will on others implies that one does not concede to that other the same humanity one grants to oneself” (1982, 179). The absence of an Emmanuel Levinas psycho-spiritual emphasis of the emptying of oneself to make room for the Other from within – at the cost of oneself – is notable. A constructive post-colonialist assessment does not disdain the ontological or the situational. Todorov continues, “a thing is not imposed when one can choose another thing instead, and knows one can so choose. The relation of knowledge to power, as we were able to observe on the occasion of the conquest, is not contingent but constitutive” (1982, 180). The formation of power steals representation. It locks and withholds varied forms of the multitudes of play and expression from all who do not identify with the, ultimately inert, placement of that perceived self. Power is stationary. It withholds those in its proximity from unifying principles of the plasticity of form.
At the risk of contradicting myself on the node of self-importance, to quote myself, “if we were to have a good governance model that emphasized the importance of self-value over inflated self-importance, individual actors would be less in the way of things and this alone would do wonders for communal perceptions of what it means to live together, in this shared space, localized and global” (2020). As Walter Benjamin noted, power exists to impose its own territorial existence. It does so at the expense of cross-cultural expression or matters of shared bonds and shared collectivity of authorization of form. It is worth pointing out that Tzvetan Todorov’s writings have been utilized by other scholars in explicating Octavia Butler’s Kindred (Sarah Eden Schiff) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Steven V. Daniels). Toni Morrison cites Tzvetan Todorov herself in her seminal essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” So, too, have critical authors Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, and Frederic Jameson expounded from Todorov.
Feminist scholar, Susan S. Lanser, in “Feminist Literary Criticism: How Feminist? How Literary? How Critical?” cites Todorov at length from his essay in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s edited 1985 collection, “Race,” Writing, and Difference, (a collection from which I cite Sandra L. Gilman in my post, “Representation and Echoes of Exuberant Liberation in the Word ‘Juba’” (2019)) further commenting from Todorov and then postulating,
Todorov’s mention of writers is a powerful reminder of the particular irony that a discipline devoted to the analysis of writing has been reluctant to examine its own discursive practices. It is worth asking ourselves why some of the most radical feminist theory is being produced in a language inaccessible to some of the most radical feminist activists. The turn toward a wider audience seems to me crucial for a critical literary feminism that could take part in a world-wide intellectual movement for social change. (Lanser 1991, 17)
Power dynamics are not without interpretation, but that must yield down to building up an educational model where the stance is not oblique. I am not disagreement with Lanser when I wrote,
First must come the elimination of structural violence, then what must follow is the letting go of violence of the self. The educational model would prepare and sustain a path towards this deliverance, but not complete the work. A new pattern of selfhood must be explored expeditiously. An adroit sovereignty of self awaits those to release their importance over the Other in all matters of displaced rhythms of selfhood and false alliances of ego. To become another is to become oneself. It resolves interpersonal violence as well as spiritual malfeasance and the relenting whispers of arcane retributive glances towards denial of form. (2020)
It is true to form that an educational model pre-revolution, reintegration, and post-violence would need to summarize critical language in accessible and benevolent forms. To say I am in disagreement with Tzvetan Todorov with his momentary comment on a utopianism of violence would be excessive, but I do think he makes too minimalistic a point.
Perhaps there is a simplistic utopianism in thus reducing matters to the use of violence, especially since violence, as we know, can take forms that are not really subtler but less obvious: can we say of an ideology or a technology that it is merely proposed when it is carried by every means of communication in existence? No, of course not. (The Conquest of America, 1982, 180).
If colonial power and post-WWI power structures are to be compared, to call the modern forging of oppression as utopian to those in authority would be eye-opening, though I do not think that is the horizontal witness to the motivation or indoctrination of these entities. In A Passion for Democracy, Todorov maintains his distance from commentary on violence, except to say “Freedom of the press is also complete, except for that which harms the integrity of the person (slander, incitement to violence) or of the community (appealing to the population or to a foreign enemy to overthrow the ruling power)” (1999, 43, my italics). Certainly, by these standards, in the contemporary West we have indeed given the press the extended freedom, without liability, to incite violence. The localized formula where this crest is laid out through commentary and conviction is in the home. This returns to Spillers explication of “the Faulknerian situation of the female” and “gender-making as a special outcome of modes of dominance” (2003, 305). Public language (the press) and private language (the home) mimic each other in straights and dominance; in routine and simplistic way-bent edification. From this it is clear that the pre-revolution of a post-violence society requires an educational model according to Lanser’s plea that takes a “turn toward a wider audience” in its erudition of form and emulating the need for critique of invested sociological stations.
“Unlimited Militarism,” a Culture of Deafness, and Seeing the Watts Riots in 2020 Protests
What can be seen in the United States in 2020 with the casual overpass of the continuing Black Lives Matters movements and the militaristic response to peaceful protests is a culture of engrained militarism. The white supremacists counter protests or demi-occupations are reflections of that American culture. The culture of deafness, the defeated self-interest of corporatized Americana and what Vaclav Havel referred to as the consumer stationed post-totalitarianism is an exaggerated form of grotesque theatre. As David R. Roediger writes in How Race Survived U.S. History, “‘[I]t took the Watts riots’ to make Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty add just seven from minority community organizations to his thirty-five person poverty board” (2008, 201). Such is the result of a culture of “unlimited militarism.” To cite Edward Said, from The Politics of Dispossession,
I defy anyone to tell me of one struggle for democracy, or women’s rights, or secularism, and the rights of minorities that the United States has supported. Insead we have propped up compliant and unpopular clients, and turned our backs on the efforts of small peoples to liberate themselves from military occupation, while subsidizing their enemies. We have prompted unlimited militarism and engaged in vast arm sales […]. (1994, 296)
This genuine community of arbitrary and invested hate is maintained by cultural norms and the lack of governmental and communal attempts to rectify its past. The Watts riots is just one example where this culture of deafness was equally invoked to pass over the issues at hand and attempt to stranglehold a business-as-usual approach. What was termed the Watts riots included other neighborhoods that were cordoned off; Watts, Central, Avalon, Florence, Green Meadow, Exposition, and Willowbrook, which captured 250,000 residents (Theoharis, 2018, 72). To isolate such a large community with the labeling of one key sector is again the erasure of compliance as well as the erasure of holistic ideas that could move the country forward towards healing and the manifestation of reconciliation.
The Voting Rights Act was signed August 6, 1965. On August 9th the Moynihan report was leaked by Newsweek portraying the “American dilemma of race” and from August 11th to 16th the Watts Riot confirmed the Moynihan report’s findings that there was a “time bomb in the ghetto” (Ibran X. Kendi, from Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of racist Ideas in America, 2016, 393). Again, the ghettoization, the reification of difference, the isolation from magnanimous reproach leads to the construction of a population not only ready to accept the terms of normalcy, but also to defend and demand it as we have seen in recent years with white terrorism on the streets of American traditionalism.
Jeanne Theoharis states in A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses of Misuses of Civil Rights History that,
Many public officials and local residents were “shocked” by the Watts riot, as it came to be called. Proclaiming California as a “state without racial discrimination,” Governor Brown flew home immediately, informing reports that “nobody told me there was an explosive situation in Los Angeles.” It was a willful, comforting shock. Even though the Los Angeles Times had covered many of the protests of the past decade, reporters and editors refused to call city leaders to account for their long deafness of Black grievances and instead helped legitimate this frame of surprise. (2018, 72).
This unwanted witnessing of trust is framed as a surprise, not as a long-term face saving tactic used by conflict resolution specialists, but as a temporary detraction to maintain the willful inability to bring conscience to change. Theoharis continues, “[t]he ‘surprise’ also obscured the role many in the city had played in dismissing Black protest and maintaining inequality. By erasing this long history of struggle, many Angelenos could conveniently evade responsibility for maintaining these systems of inequality and creating the conditions for the uprising (2018, 72).” What is evasion but a military tactic? Collective social consciousness has many avenues of departure, but to reel in one exposure of one frame at a time is a willful prelude of the maintenance of imparity.
Militaristic police presence at the various protests around the U.S. in 2020 is a reflection of white evasion in 1965. To depart from responsibility is to actively seek to maintain a disordered form of assembly. Token suggestions, relations, magnifications, and rehearsals will only function to preserve the contrasts that adhere to a dominant culture of deafness that disassembles with the threat of armed conflict. Just as the explication from Edward Said in seeing the United States’s role in the Mideast, so, too, does our prominent hand in matters at home weigh against forms of justice or coherent messaging that progress might follow.
Callie House, racial austerity, and the “fluidity of movement” in African American Action
Mary Frances Berry’s My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations recounts an early struggle for reparations and collective acceptance of individual freedoms in addition to a story of collective healing. The text recounts organized meetings, in one case,
The oldest member present was 101 years old; the youngest was thirty-nine. It was a sadly impoverished group that the federal government had declared war on: small sects like those at the Boone County [Missouri] meeting. But the power of the idea of reparations and the growing number of supporters scared government officials, even though they had the group under surveillance and knew that they were nothing more than ex-slaves and their families meeting to commiserate and work peacefully to achieve economic justice. (2005, 93-94)
House has gathered ten of thousands of dues paying members into her efforts to achieve reparations. Not only did they welcome ex-slaves, but whites as well; anyone who believed in their cause. The meetings were not only occasions for collective political action, but shared experiences and of communal growth as these meeting gave former slaves and opportunity to recount and exhume their personal endurance as “the telling and retelling of their slavery, hard work, poverty, and the condition of their relatives, neighbors, and friends, association members reinforced the commitment that kept the organization together and growing” (Berry 2005, 95). Through sharing of the personal, the political became manifest as an realized entity and prescribed doctrine.
The projection of witnessing from the Black community onto white enslavement and cordial, commensurate complicity is not subtle in social action as it is a projection of personal liberty. An outward parsing distinction into the social fabric of white, rigid institutions. The reflection of inner life is a collection of recoil into a larger communal activity. This is true of the African American community as well as white stagnant solidity. We all contribute to social growth or social stagnation through our inner lives. Our souls parse the intended development and regroup or restate what direction we find ourselves cornered into as opposed to ideal (re)constructions toward healthy and intellectual placement.
It is not unlike a dance. One group may move along the rhythms of a multi-parlayed direction while another group may move in place, too restricted to feel the scene. Consider this excerpt from Tera Hunter’s To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War,
African-American dance emphasized the movement of body parts, often asymmetrically and independent of one another, whereas Euro-American dance demanded rigidity to migrate its amorous implications. Black dance generally exploded outward from the hips; it was performed from a crouching position with the knees flexed and the body bent at the waist, which allowed a fluidity of movement in a propulsive rhythmic fashion. This reinforced the sense of the dancer’s glee. (1997, 175)
The ontological action of dance is a personal recollection of the freedom of movement and the aspiration to be released from the broadly enforced stillness of white disenfranchisement; oppression of stillness and rigidity being a reflection and manifestation of white enforced oppression. However, African American dance with its “fluidity of movement” is a declaration of independence and the joy of liberation.
Callie House’s productivity and industriousness reflected not only a “fluidity of movement,” but also an elasticity of action. It may not be especially commonly known that elasticity is a scientific term with large metaphorical overtones. It refers to brain growth and redevelopment after a cause of damage. It has been shown that after trauma the brain has the elasticity, the ability, to reconnect its mental highway of activity and learn again both basic and complex skills. On a wider note elasticity is not just cognitive but a realized reflective symbol of achievement under duress. After devastation comes growth and this is a natural attainment and fostering of personal, independent reality.
The reality of our communal sphere is a reflection of the inner lives of our citizens; both individually and as a network. As Berry recounts, “Mrs. House collected funds personally at local meetings and carefully stretched whatever she received to pay her fare to the next place. She met with agents and supervised their work. She stayed with local chapter members and had them send correspondence to her family. The group also had to hold more frequent meetings to share information, instead of distributing flyers and other material because of government harassment” (2005, 167). The clear, fervent “fluidity of movement” demonstrated by Callie House is not only a testament to her personal character but a larger motions of the community, reflected in her, and a bout of interpersonal, intra-communal distillation of elasticity of self-determination under the flagrant racial austerity towards collective and individual Action.
What are reflections, but ontological stirs of motivational witnessing? What is the course of independent disclosure of character, but a dance of the kind of wealth that is not monetary. As we seek our way forward into the future we can recall the liberty of strength of the individual, not as a personal action, but as a projection of witnessed movement towards collective good. The good of innate rejection of oppression and a solidarity among the whole is a goal we continuously find ourselves in want of. For just a moment, we can hear the memory of the pulsation of movement; the dance that recollects freedom and does not digress in the face of forced redirection.