Blackness and Loneliness: Notes On Impossible Possibilities

It has been a long time since I’ve been alone. And the coat of its warmth reminds me of the impossibility of a pure black loneliness. Black loneliness is always interrupted by the interjections of flesh. Flesh taken; flesh turn apart; flesh marred and maned; flesh turned to taxidermy, to spectacle, to fetish. Blackness and loneliness never coexist peacefully. There is always a violence that interrupts the Black that sits alone. It is because the violence is infinite and always expanding. The violence is the infinitely, expanding Universe itself. It is the World that constituted itself upon the murder, rape and plundering of Black life that now secures it functionality, its vitality, its energetic pulse through a continuation of that project of murder, rape and plundering. It is the World itself that allows for every existential experience of a life in conjunction with Blackness to be a life lived in the afterlife of slavery.

But what does this mean? What does it mean to live life in the afterlife of slavery? Sadiya Hartman describes what the afterlife of slavery looks like, saying that it is, “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” But, can what it looks like be what it is? What follows is subtle, but closer to the point of reaching what may be an answer to our question, Hartman writes, “I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.” What, then might it mean to be the afterlife of slavery? What does it mean for one’s being to be best described as, “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment”? What does it mean for that to be you?

 

Black life is lived in a strikethrough. This strikethrough forecloses access to life proper. The afterlife of slavery in black life is everywhere. The afterlife of slavery finds its way into the houses and homes of the middle-class Black lumpen-bourgeoisie. Those wealthy Black bodies who assumed that economic ascendency would provide the opportunity for their transcendence of Blackness. The afterlife of slavery finds itself, even inside those great white pillars, where a Black President and his Black family sleep atop the blood and sweat of Slaves. That blood and that sweat still stains the floorboards, and even their political ascendency as leaders of the Unfree Universe cannot evade the brush of vigilant anti-black violence that provided the space for their Black-faced neoliberal ascendance. The reason is that Black life is lived in a strikethrough. Black life is lived in the afterlife of slavery. And Black death is the World’s condition of possibility. If Black death is the World’s condition of possibility, then one can acknowledge a moment of singularity. The birth of the Modern World is like the Birth of the Universe. A violent rupture; a big bang, a remapping of space and time, has configured and constructed the World through the violent subjugation of the Black body. The Modern World expands infinitely through its continued project of expansive subjugation; new technologies are utilized, new mechanisms of power are weaponized, new models of the same paradigm – white-over-black, white-over-black, white-over-black – are made. And the World goes on.

And for some reason, that genocidal World-inaugurating moment elucidates a sense of radical possibility for those of us impossibly living in the afterlife of it. What if, “I, too, am the afterlife of slavery” was not a just an affirmative Afro-pessimism, but an affirmative cosmologic Afro-pessimism? And what if, to speak of those bodies who live in the afterlife of slavery, was to speak of those bodies emanating with the narratives, dreams, fantasies, resistances and possibilities of those bodies whose death was responsible for World-creation? What if this is what it means to never be alone, and to be the afterlife of slavery? What if it means to always be-with the flesh stolen on the coast of Africa, the flesh chained and locked on board the ship, the flesh thrown overboard the ship, the flesh put on the auction block, the flesh murdered, raped, and brutalized? And what if to be always with this flesh is not only to live life always in a strikethrough, but always in the afterlife of that slavery that is death, always with/in the afterlife?

In Christian thought, Christ’s death is not an end, but the beginning of life in the afterlife of Christ. When Christ is reborn, he leaves behind his spirit to guide the way of his followers, and reminds them that one day He will return. Whosoever believeth in him, shall have afterlasting life. I would like to think of the ensemble of Black death in analogous way. The Black was subjected to gratuitous violence, not to save the World as Christ was, but to create one. And the rebirth of slavery to which all black flesh is subjected to, through its Jim Crow formulation to its neo-Jim Crow carceral continuum, is nothing more than the spirit of slavery that always encapsulates the Black. In the same way, that the spirit of Christ is thought to always be-with the Christian; the spirit of Slavery is always with the Black. This is the afterlife of slavery. But what makes Blackness such a radical rejection of Euro-Christian values, of Western values, of Whiteness, is that blackness represents an abject positionality that is always already a “bunch” or an “ensemble” So when Hartman says, “I, too, am the afterlife of slavery” the “I” is a collection of black narratives of rape and resistance, death and deviance, violence and vigilance, fear and fugitivity. The “I” is emanating with the originary ensemble of black death, the originary subjection of the Slave that is always the Enslaved (plural). It is for this reason that the only thing worth starting is the End of the World. For the World itself constitutes the continuation of Black death, for the World was made possible through that death.

Whereas Christ returns to life to save the World, the Black returns to life to end it. One of the most provocative claims of Afro-Pessimism is that the World can end, again. (It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?) And I think it’s very important that we imagine that end, and then imagine black life after the end of the World.  Black death started it, and black life lived without a strikethrough will end it.  For the end of the World looks like, as Frank Wilderson puts it, giving “life itself back to the Slave.” Whosoever believeth in them, shall have afterlasting life. Whosoever believeth in them – believeth in the flesh that will not allow you to be alone, believeth in the flesh that will not allow you to be an “I”, believeth in the flesh that reminds you that ontological resistance in the eyes of the Black is paraontological possibility, the flesh stolen, the flesh through overboard, the flesh put on the auction block, the flesh made into chattel, the flesh lynched, the flesh raped, the flesh murdered, the flesh water-hosed, the flesh that rebelled, the flesh that taught, the flesh that loved, the flesh that struggled, the flesh that cared and built and willed and strove to end the World – shall have afterlasting life. For somewhere in their stories, in their lives, is the way the World was made, the way the World will end, the way black life will be realized as black life, and the reason why blackness is never alone.

Fanon’s Minister: Towards A Decolonial Theology

When one first looks at the colonial situation, one is immediately brought face-to-face with the permeation of death. Death, in the form of social death, insofar as social death is, “having no social existence beyond that which [one] has with [their] master,”[1] haunts the colonized. This is, of course, until their social death collides with their physical, leaving in return no memory, no residue of existence, no posturing position in the social order capable of differing the colonized from any other aspect of the colonizer’s personal items. The fact that death characterizes the entire colonial situation is not a surprise to the colonized. To be colonized is to be dehumanized, to be stripped of oneself as a self and to dwell existentially in a state of non-being. In the words of Aime Cesaire, “colonization = thingification.”[2]

What is pivotally important about this state of death and commodification imposed on the colonized by the colonizer is the way this manipulation of power manifests itself across every aspect of the colonized life. Colonial occupation, as an act of violent usurpation of another’s social, political, economic and spiritual livelihood, casts the shadow of death upon all social, political, economic and spiritual aspects of the colonized existence in the world. This shadowed death inside the spiritual world consolidates the relationship of social death in a pacifying way, as Fanon puts it, “The colonized subject also manages to lose sight of the colonist through religion . . . The individual thus accepts the devastation decreed by God, grovels in front of the colonist, bows to the hand of fate, and mentally readjusts to acquire the serenity of stone.”[3] When religion, specifically in this case Christianity, plays a role in the pacification of a people suffering from debasement and enslavement, it will not only continue the state of social death for the oppressed, but perpetuate spiritual violence. Violence in the colonial situation is not only something that occurs when colonized subjects are shot, raped, beaten, battered, or bombed, but violence occurs institutionally in the colonial situation at the level of status quo. This means that colonized subjects encounter the psycho-social effects of the colonial situation in their everyday lived experience regardless of the other minor and major potentiated attacks directed against them. The colonial situation and the institution of violence occur simultaneously and inseparably from one another. It’s a world where you “are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything”[4] and accepting the religion of the oppressor makes it no different. This why the decolonization process is more than just an economic, political, and social revolt against an oppressor. It’s a spiritual revolt as well, and it is the task of decolonization to make anew all those aspects formerly instilled by the oppressor in order to foster a whole new world in the economic, political, social, and most importantly for our review, spiritual realm.

The fact that Christianity has been utilized as a mechanism of power by white oppressors in the task of pacification, “civilizing,” and occupation of the oppressed is socially and historically undeniable. These circumstances have resulted in many African intellectuals, especially Fanon[5], to consider the position of Christianity in the liberation and decolonization process as antithetical to the struggle for freedom. The argument follows along the logic of: If decolonization is creation of a new man, then the religious must too be made anew, and Christianity, being the religion of the oppressor must be done away with. There is considerable thought that must be given to the idea that Christianity in and of itself is a spiritual war waged against colonized subjects. In fact, it could be argued that there is no greater theodicy than the relationship between the Christian God and African persons all across the world. The high concentration of Christians in the African-black community is undeniably a result of effective colonialism, imperialism, and European domination, not only of the black psyche, but of black spirituality. However, the answer to the crisis in black religiosity in reference to those persons who are Christian who wish to maintain their faith, but are troubled by this critique, is not a retreat to some pseudo-pre-colonial African spirituality that can never be retrieved in the honest meaning it had prior to colonialism, or the move towards anti-Christian atheism. Colonialism creates a new world, and any retreat to pre-colonial religiosity does not take seriously that creation and the impact of the creation in the making of a new world, and atheism may not be who the colonized are and who they wish to be. Instead the colonized through the process of decolonization, “must work and struggle in step with the people so as to shape the future and prepare the ground where vigorous shoots are already sprouting.”[6]  If these “shoots” just so happen to include some aspects of Christianity that were imported into the colonized religious psychology, since Christianity may be as much a part of the colonized subject’s new personhood as the new economic urban centers that sprung about as a result of the same colonial occupation, these aspects have to be taken seriously as a part of the collective thought processes of the African persons. However, just as the rest of national culture must, “work and struggle in step with the people” in order to, “shape the future,” Christianity, if it wishes to remain in the lives of the colonized, must do the same. Christianity must be decolonized.

The task of decolonial theology in the midst of the decolonization revolution is utter and violent destruction of oppressive European theology. Hence if, “the task of a good theology is acculturation—to draw upon the cultural formation that is already present,”[7] then, decolonial theology must be both cognizant of and attuned with the transformational cultural processes emerging within the colonized subject. The colonized subject at the moment decolonization begins is a subject violently thrusting forward towards an unforeseen personhood, towards a sense of self that has long been ostracized from her, towards a collective cultural understanding that is both cognizant of the precolonial period and equally aware of the contemporary thought processes that make unified revolt not only possible, but necessary. This violent thrusting is an exertion requisite for any decolonization.  For, “decolonization is always a violent event.”[8]

Decolonization is a transformation of the individual and the collective wherein being-in-itself connects with being-with-others resulting in a much needed social, political, economic, and spiritual revolution. Theology must tap into this energy and the creative exertion of violence that spurs from it, never shying away from the energy of the people nor the violence of the people, but fully encompassing the entire range of the newly developing national culture. Fanon defines culture to be, “the collective thought process of a people to describe, justify, and extol the actions whereby they have joined forces and remained strong,” going on to add that, “National culture in the underdeveloped countries, therefore, must lie at the very heart of the liberation struggle these countries are waging.”[9] Decolonial theology, then, is the Christian language used to describe, justify, and extol the actions of the colonized in the process of decolonization. What should then be insinuated in this acculturative understanding of theology and its relation to the decolonization project is that decolonial theology not only understands the necessity of violence in the process of the liberation struggle, but decolonial theology itself, is violent. That decolonial theology understands the necessity of violence in the process of liberation is not a bastardization of Christian scripture; on the contrary, it’s an appropriate understanding of scripture insofar as God, the liberation of the oppressed, and violence have always walked hand-and-hand. One needs only look to the role of God in the liberation of the Israelites in the book of Exodus to find support for such a statement. It is for this reason that Aime Cesaire describes the death of his master in, Lyric and Dramatic Poetry as, “the only baptism that today I remember.”[10] Violence, insofar as it is used by the oppressed to overcome their oppressor, is redeeming.

But how is decolonial theology violent in and of itself? Decolonial theology is violent because once again, “decolonization is always a violent event.” Decolonial theology must decolonize white oppressive theology that forces the colonized to be passive, oppressed, and docile when speaking about religion, and in doing so, they must destroy the toxemic constructions of white, Eurocentric theology and, “blow the colonial [God] to smithereens.”[11] This is the central focus of decolonial theology: bringing an abrupt and catastrophic end to the colonial God. Taking seriously the current state of social and spiritual death, decolonial theology attempts to obliterate the connection the slave has with his master in relation to God. Decolonial theology, or any offspring of liberation theology, is the only option available for anyone wishing to continue practicing Christianity during or after decolonization. Any other theological understanding permits the colonized to remain in the condition of social death whereas decolonial theology, like every decolonization project, is a resurrection. It is a spiritual uprising towards personhood, and a recognition that, “Oppressed and oppressors cannot possibly mean the same thing when they speak of God. The God of the oppressed is a God of revolution who breaks the chains of slavery. The oppressors’ God is a God of slavery and must be destroyed along with the oppressors.”[12]

[1] Erna Brodber, History and Social Death, (Caribbean Quarterly. 2012), 111-115

[2] Aime Cesaire, “Discourse on Colonialism,” in African Philosophy 1998, edited by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Malden, Massachusets: Blackwell Publsihes Inc.), 226

[3] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York, NY: Grove Press. 2004), 18

[4] Ibid, 4

[5] For example, Fanon writes, “I am talking of Christianity and this should come to as no surprise to anybody. The Church in the colonies a white man’s Church, a foreigners’ Church. It does not call the colonized to the ways of God, but to the ways of the white man, to the ways of the master, the ways of the oppressor.” Ibid, 7

[6] Ibid, 168

[7] Josiah Young, Pan-African Deliverance: Providence and The Legacy of Ancestors, (Trenton, NJ:Africa World Press. January 1992), 18-20

[8] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York, NY: Grove Press. 2004), 1

[9] Ibid, 168

[10] Found in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Ibid, 46

[11] Ibid, 6

[12] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 1986), 61