Runnin’, Runnin’ Runnin’ but Never Runnin’ Away: Latour, Fanon and the Impossibility of a Natural Black Escape

     I.

            The autobiographical never emerges within an isolated frame of reference. The autobiographical emerges within the sociopolitical contours of the World writ-large. Our stories are never “our stories” in a way that strips the biographical away from the sociological, but instead “our stories” are always radically “ours.” In other words, our stories are always stories of relationality (or of the inability to make relations), stories of sociality (or the production of a ruptured sociality), and stories of paradigms (or the socio-political spatiotemporal structures that we inhabit). Sadiya Hartman writes, “The autobiographical example is not a personal story that folds onto itself; it’s not about navel gazing, it’s really about trying to look at historical and social process and one’s own formation as a window onto social and historical processes, as an example of them.”[1] The autobiographical is a case study of the self – a self that is always embedded in a network of social and historical processes.

What follows is an example of such a case study. Frantz Fanon, in his work entitled The Wretched of the Earth, speaks to a “world divided into compartments,” a world where, “economic reality, inequality, and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities.”[2] This world is the modern world, the world of the colonizers, the world of anti-blackness. It is in this world that multiple methods of emancipation have been attempted, only to fold onto itself and recycle the practices of subjugation. My story is a biographical account of running, running, running, but never running away. In this story, I speak to the compartmentalized political culture of the modern world which exudes anti-blackness in every direction through a story of an anti-black encounter from my youth, and the hope of escape through running to the natural. However, by conjoining this narrative with the work of Bruno Latour in We Were Never Modern, I look back on that story as a means to articulate why an escape into the natural is a (non)escape. For if the nature/culture divide of modernity is nonexistent, then the notion of escape into nature away from the culture of anti-blackness is nonexistent as well. Fugitivity, or the practice of running as a method of resistance, does not provide any possible transcendence. In other words, we can run from anti-blackness, but we can’t hide.

II.

            What young love does is confirm the self. Friendship is one thing; love is another. To be in love while young is to take the intimate affirmation of friendship and to multiply the sensation. Not only do they like who I am, they like all the hidden parts of me too. They like what I’m afraid to share with everyone else. They know my secrets and they keep them locked somewhere in this thing called, “love.” It is this feeling adults forget when they tell their children, “You’re too young to be in love. You don’t really know what love is.” The adults forget how they were once able to be loved by someone who did not quite know themselves yet; the adults forget how they once were love someone who did not quite know themselves yet. But, the children know and the children never forget – the children know love better than the rest of us.

I fell in love for the first time in 8th grade. We met in middle school in the rural outskirts of a town called North East, Maryland. With a population of 3,715, everyone in the town lived closely; and with a demographic percentage of 85.5% white people and 7.2% black people, everyone in the town lived separately.[3] It was a town that seemed stuck in what many people would like to consider the American past. But it was a town that reminded one of why Anthony Farley is correct in saying, “memories of progress up from slavery are screen memories.  We remember slavery-to-segregation-to-neosegregation as progress up from slavery but there is no progress.”[4] In previous writings I have discussed the lived experience of growing up in rural white America writing:

Our lived experience of racial terror is not only conceptual. It is alive and pervasive. It’s an explicit and pervasive racism that sits right next to you in Biology class. It’s an explicit and pervasive racism that doesn’t wish to play in your hair, but pulls it, demeans it, disgraces it. It’s a racism that calls you, “Nigger,” belittles you into silence, demeans you into suicide. It’s a post-racial racism that imitates the racism of old. It is overt and actual, yet somehow still learns to benefit and hide behind the post-racial laws of integration, tokenized tales of black success, and the optimistic masquerade of the Obama era.[5]

Yet somehow in the midst of the madness of rural white America, I had fell in love with a white girl. She was young, fiery and white. I was young, poetic and black. We had found each other in the mayhem of the Manichean World, still characterized by what Sadiya Hartman called, “the afterlife of slavery.”[6] And we weren’t ignorant to the violence of the anti-black world around us, we just believed that, as I wrote in a song called, “The Story of Determination” in 8th grade, “[W]alkin’ in this life wit so much hatin / it’s so dangerous” and that perhaps our love could, “just transform ya eyes” to see that, “I’m sick of all this pain here / but we don’t have to fight / we are one that’s what we saying.”  To be one, however, with whiteness in an anti-black world, and to identify the securitization of that oneness through a relationality of affect and intimacy between a black boy and a white girl is to fall into the neurosis Frantz Fanon calls, “a hallucinatory whitening.” Frantz Fanon, writing about interracial relationality and the false oneness that it creates states, “Out of the blackest part of my soul, through the zone of hachures, surges up this desire to be suddenly white. I want to be recognized not as Black, but as White. But – and this is the form of recognition that Hegel never described – who better than the white women to bring this about? By loving me, she proves to me that I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man. I am a white man. Her love opens the illustrious path that leads to total fulfillment…”[7] I had found a way into a world that was not made for me.

No one could have told me at the time that we were not going to spend the rest of our lives together. I was convinced that our love was a love that cut across the boundaries of the Manichean world and opened up a space for a rupture in this compartmentalized world. However, what I didn’t know in 8th grade was what Jean Veneuse, the protagonist in a novel written by Rene Maran, did know prior to falling in love with Andree Marielle, a white French woman. Fanon, writing about the novel, states, “Andree Marielle has written to him that she loves him, but Jean Veneuse needs authorization. He needs a white man to say: take my sister.”[8] And whereas Jean Veneuse receives that authorization and still lapses into abandonment neurosis – so incapable of coming to terms with the blackness of his body that the legitimation of his white peers who grant him access to oneness with whiteness could not dismay him – I had not. Whereas Jean Veneuse was told, “In fact, you are like us, you are “us.” You think like us. You act like us. You think yourself black and others think of you as such? Big mistake! You only look like a black. For everything else, you think like a European. That’s why it’s only normal for you to love like a European,”[9] I was told, “You are not like us. You are not us. You don’t think like us. You don’t act like us. You are black, and for that reason, you cannot and you shall not continue to date my daughter.”

If the words of her father were not enough to break through the illusionary whitening, then the will of the network of institutionalized anti-blackness was. The father of my lover did not only say we could not be together, because of my blackness, he even called the school and told the school that he wished to keep us separate and the school followed his orders. From school administrators to teachers, there became a devoted effort to ensuring our separation. We could not sit together. We could not walk together. We could not be seen with each other. We could not under circumstances be with each other. It was my first encounter with the implementation of a powerful surveillance of my black body. To be or not to be was not the question. The entire world has begun to conspire towards my (non)being, and the will of the anti-black world had been working effectively. In response to this situation, I wrote in the same “Story of Determination’, “Obviously I’m walking in a darker place / I disagree wit folks that see me in a darker way / my allies see smoke / but I just see some harder days.” The will of the Manichean world had to be sustained and any ounce of innocence and purity I thought I could retain had to be devoured in order to sustain it. Young love confirms the self, and I bared a body unworthy of confirmation. Not only was she supposes to despise who I was, she was suppose scatter my secrets to the world to be surveilled. Not only was she supposed to fear me, but she was supposed to collaborate with the rest of the world in policing me. I am black, therefore, I was/am unworthy of white love. For, “The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible…”[10]

In response to this violence, I must have thought – even if subconsciously – to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors. I must have thought that running, like my ancestors had done, had some intrinsic liberatory value that had to be tapped whenever the world seemed at its end.  I must have thought that running would bring the pain of heartbreak and anti-blackness to an end. The 8th grade boy wrote in a song called, “Hold Hands and Run, “I said my mind already set to keep you here forever girl // I don’t wanna see you cry // so let’s run into forever girl.” To run into forever was to run into an eternity outside of the world we inhabited. I wanted to sustain the sensation of love, but suspend the intensity of anti-blackness. I wanted the force of the political world to become still; I wanted to find an outside of anti-blackness. At the time, I must have, in my own way, figured that following the footsteps of my ancestors might have opened the door to some emancipation. I must have found inspiration in the narratives of fugitivity. I must have thought of running as more than an act of exercise, but instead an exercise in action. But where does one run when the paradigm that one is entrapped is one that ensures social death, the inability to form relationality, and exteriority? Where does one go when it seems like the sociopolitical world is mapped to recreate and recycle violence? In eighth grade, my answer to these questions was simple: You run into nature. I wrote, “We can go into the mountains / drinkin’ from fountains / slinging shots at animals / and singing to flowers / camp on the beach wit the waterfall showers / we can sail on the atlantic / just stare at each other / leave a letter on our table / tell our family we love them / and never look back.”

Nature provided the safe haven from a political world bent on my destruction. Nature was outside the political. Nature was where the world of anti-blackness could not go. Nature was where blackness could not be pathologized, where blackness could not be expropriated, made into an instrument, devoured, negated, and harmed. Nature was where young love could go to be young love without the historical racial schema. Nature and its inhabitants lived outside of history. Nature was natural, and therefore the unnaturalness of the social construction of blackness had no impact on its configuration. And whereas this idea appeared true on face-value, this idea was symptomatic of the persuasive influence of modernity and the “hallucinatory whitening” that still remain internalized. Bruno Latour hypothesizes in his We Were Never Modern that, “the word ‘modern’ designates two sets of entirely different practices which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective, but have recently begun to be confused. The first set of practices, by ‘translation’, creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by ‘purification’, creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the other hand; that of nonhumans on the other.”[11] The latter practice of purification is the practice that establishes a “partition between a natural world that has always been there, a society with predictable and stable interests and stakes, and a discourse that is independent of both reference and society.”[12] In other words, the practice of purification purifies hybridity in order to create a dichotomy of nature and culture. By subscribing to this notion, I subscribed to the script of modernity which did not allow me to see how nature itself is tainted with the history of anti-blackness.

The Atlantic I wrote about running to is not just an oceanic body of water; it is an oceanic body of water still imbued with the nutrient cycles of dead black bodies thrown overboard from slave ships navigated by white slave merchants.[13] The beach, or the eastern sea shore is where the doors of those slave ships would open only for my ancestors to recognize that the door of the ship had opened up to what Dionne Brand has called, “The Door of No Return.”  I thought I ran to nature to find sanctity, however, I did not know of the Latourian analysis that ruptured the nature/culture divide only to give language to the always already hybrid nature of both. Nature is embedded in a cultural matrix of anti-blackness historicity. The trees are stained with reminisces of noosed black necks; the rivers with the corpses of suicided and drowned black bodies; the mountains and trails with marooned and running black fugitives, and the list goes on and on. It is no wonder that in the same song quoted above, in the same verse quoted above, yet later in that verse, I wrote, “Come and get it if you want it / I feel ya and I want ya / I’m yo man / let’s hold hands and go where / there’s nowhere.”  Indeed, nowhere is the only place I could run. If the nature/culture divide is as Latour describes it, then the Manichean World is embedded there, even in nature as well. Anti-blackness does not end where the entrance to the woods begins. But instead the entrance of the woods begins another encounter with anti-blackness. Henceforth when we, “run innocently across vast acres of grass, formerly stained with black blood,” we must remember that, “only fifty years ago, red faces flew Confederate flags next to black bodies hanging from tree branches. And even though we no longer see the black bodies hanging, the Confederate flags still wave as a symbol of a vanguard that will undoubtedly ‘rise again.’”[14] For we can keep we running, running, running, but we can never run away from the fact of anti-blackness.

Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove press, 2008.

———. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007.

Farley, Anthony Paul. “Perfecting Slavery.” Loy. U. Chi. LJ 36 (2004): 225.

Gillespie, John. “Rural Niggers.” Propter Nos 1, no. 1 (2016): 20–22.

Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route. Macmillan, 2008.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press, 2012.

“North East, Maryland,” City-Data, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.city-data.com/city/North-East-Maryland.html

Saunders, Patricia J. “Fugitive Dreams of Diaspora: Conversations with Saidiya Hartman.” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal 6, no. 1 (2008): 7.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

[1] Patricia J Saunders, “Fugitive Dreams of Diaspora: Conversations with Saidiya Hartman,” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal 6, no. 1 (2008): 7.

[2] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007), 3–5.

[3] “North East, Maryland,” City-Data, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.city-data.com/city/North-East-Maryland.html

[4] Anthony Paul Farley, “Perfecting Slavery,” Loy. U. Chi. LJ 36 (2004): 229.

[5] John Gillespie, “Rural Niggers,” Propter Nos 1, no. 1 (2016): 20.

[6] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (Macmillan, 2008), 6.

[7] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove press, 2008), 45.

[8] Ibid, 49.

[9] Ibid, 50.

[10] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 4.

[11] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 2012), 10.

[12] Ibid, 11

[13] This remark is in reference to statements made in Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016), 39–40.

[14] Gillespie, “Rural Niggers.”

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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.