Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

Or Else…

Didier William Peel back every layer

Image Credit: Didier William, Peel back every layer (2017), 31″ x 44″

In the clash of motives that it inscribes, the term “freedman” and the conditions of existence that it signals are poignantly alluded to in the epigraph that Richard White chooses to inaugurate his exhaustive study of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”1 Excerpted from Matthew Arnold’s “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse,” this poetic vision of dominant and emergent phases of a cultural conjunction, though specifically related to another historical register altogether, nonetheless captures the sense of a terrifying ambiguity into which peril four million freedpeople are swept in the aftermath of Appomattox. My own telescoped impressions of the era, as though the nation traversed the path to freedom in the blink of an eye, once Lincoln’s Executive Order of Emancipation had been signed, prove as distorted and short-sighted as W.E.B.Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction attested decades ago. The pageant of civic tragedy that unfolds in White’s opening chapters traces a dialectical seesaw between progressive legislation and policy-making and successive waves of nullification and failure so finely aligned that constitutional Amendments Thirteen, Fourteen, and Fifteen still stand today in my mind as a legislative marvel of timing, political courage (in too short supply at the moment), and the manipulation of threat, deftly wielded like a battering ram by an impassioned congressional majority. Violence, primarily aimed at freedpeople and Unionists, subtends this calculus of motives throughout the period as the cast of dramatis personae—the former enslaved, the former enslaver, the stateless, the landless and dispossessed, the Union Army and local militias, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, and for Lincoln’s second unfinished term, a president about as vile and despised as the current occupant of the Oval Office—struggle for daily bread and dignity in this morass of disorder and hatred. And suffusing this volatile mix, always the powerful accelerant of race—native, black, white, other. The country had been torn apart—600,000 dead and gone, legions and legions of homeless, disabled, broken-hearted, displaced—and a president murdered, but we tend to forget that the Union for all that would not be healed anytime soon. In fact, we might justifiably argue that a century and a half later, it has not yet, even though it remains under the doctor’s care.

The three amendments, aka the “citizenship amendments,” are nested like matryoshka dolls, as ratification of the Fourteenth was made by the Republican majority grounds for readmission to the Union; by early 1868, enough states, via force and cajolery in some cases, had approved the law that became a part of the U.S Constitution, but Republican Radicals, White contends, “did not trust the South” and consequently “drafted the Fifteenth Amendment, which would prohibit states from ever restricting suffrage on the grounds of ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’ “(White 94) Again, ratification, with reference to states still under military control, was mandated for readmission; the bill was submitted to the states in 1869 and ratified in 1870. A review of these complex maneuvers over a period of five years –we know, too, that access to the ballot would hound African-American community well into the Twenty-First Century—suggests that the vote has never been either a gift to black people, or at any point a flat-out certainty. Acquired within shouting distance of war’s end, the ballot would exact so severe a cost to the freedman and his/her children that we think of its troubled legacy today as an act of citizenship signed and sealed in blood.

Ironically, however twisted a standard of measure, we might gauge how far we’ve come by the degree of doubt expressible toward the efficacy of voter registration and electoral politics, as have a couple of my fellow writers in this issue. Even though I regard this argumentative posture as a strategic error of near-fatal proportions, I think I understand how we got here: basically, there are two related, but contrastive, founding propositions on black life and thought in modernity that critics have consistently elaborated since “time immemorial,” and by that, I mean the time that the student of history marks down as the beginning of her sense of crisis that initiates “blackness” in the Western context; as I understand it, Afrocentric views, for instance, elide “blackness” and Africanity which concept is driven back into the ancient world so that transatlantic slavery—relatively recent in light of an ancient human past—is not the origin—or more precisely, the prime time— of black personality’s historical identity, but, rather, an interruption of it. The diasporic, or (for lack of a better word) creolized reading of blackness lends weight to the term itself, insofar as blackness on this view defines a new historical apprenticeship, kin to Africanness, but distinct from it in its particular and stressful formation, instaurated by the trade. One “becomes” black –neither a phylogeny nor an ontogeny—by virtue of his/her interpellation in total Western Economy. These portions of discursive content imply discrete spatiotemporal registers, as the putative subjects of each overlap, but are not entirely conformable (even if they look exactly alike), and there’s the rub.

In the former instance, one discovers as many occasions as possible to establish and sustain symbolic contact with an imagined past, long receded, so that emphasis comes to rest on the power and porosity of myth and its ceremonial/ritualistic determinations wherever possible. Whether the Afrocentric sense eventuates in a vision of strategic movement toward a putative origin (as in “return” narratives/actualities of black politics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries), or of ideological movement toward it (“ancestral” ceremonies, ritual celebrations), this reading seems to engender a politics that is cultural, that looks “otherworldly”—the place of the ego-ideal—in its valorized reference to an imagined ancestral field. We would anticipate that electoral politics in its uninspirational mundaneness might actually be beneath it. In the latter instance, focus comes to rest on the conditions that make blackness possible in the first place and what several diasporic thinkers, Frantz Fanon, prominent among them, describe as “disalienation,” or the process of undoing the deleterious effects of slavery and colonization; because the diasporic view installs the latter as efficient cause of historic black movement, its political projects are charged with a sense of urgency as they resonate the era of their appearance with unmistakable identitarian markings. David Walker’s, Anna Julia Cooper’s, and W.E.B.Du Bois’s respective discourse, for example, could never be mistaken for a different time/cultural period, which means that such discourses are organically linked to their own “now.” Consequently, the political protocols of a diasporic commitment tend to reflect the sense of crisis that characterizes blackness as an emergent category of human possibility. Because blackness in the diasporic reading runs parallel to modernity, blackness is cut away from the idea of Africa—perhaps we could say more precisely that the idea of Africa is bracketed in this ideological outline, rather than jettisoned as it might have been a century ago—as the idea of blackness itself assumes the name of a virtually absolute origin. If we think of these concurrent strands of ideas as postures, then we realize the extent to which they determine not only how one stands, but where, as well as why.

This enormous conceptual legacy, one way or another, accounts, I believe, for the lion’s share of African-American theoretical production and might be said to proffer a rich example of the problem of being/becoming and time. In its impressive variations and combinations, recombinations and iterations, black theory-making has engendered its fullest efflorescence in my view in the post-sixties period with regard to both thematic variedness and complexity and the democratic and demographic distribution of its practitioners; it is also true that any one of these postures and/or variations on it might evince at any given moment a kind of intellectual sclerosis which would induce in turn a conservative politics. If, for example, a theory governed by a diasporic view of black history from which to commence its narrative reifies slavery and colonization as inherent properties in a subject, then the theoretical posture no longer serves as an intellectual technology, or a heuristic device, but, rather, comes to advance an ontological valence. In my own work, for instance, I attempt to advance a theory of flesh/body as a strategy to differentiate historical positionalities in confrontation with the modern world. But if this idea has any usefulness, it proposes the theory as an opening into a closure; a torque that kicks off movement or rotation in static properties. But I should hope not to lose sight of the human potential that the subject of the flesh embodies; perhaps another way to say this is that the enfleshed subject inscribes an opening in a chain of necessity rather than a last word. The theory does not exhaust the subject that it would address, but attempts to highlight it. To hold to the view that the enfleshed subject is actually chattel or property—which we cannot say, insofar as we have merely established a subject possibility in this case—defeats the purpose of discriminating in the first place between a conceptual device on the one hand and a speaking (even if barred) subject on the other.

I have taken, then, the long way around in order to say that the ballot does not lose efficacy when it is wielded by black personality because the latter was once defined as anomie, as chattel. In other words, to premise the future of blackness on its past is to be mired in timelessness, which is precisely to be bereft of historicity, of differentiation, of progression. But moreover, it confuses a conceptual narrative, or a position in discourse, with an actual narrative that will always exceed it. To disparage the black vote is not a sophisticated, or radical, response to anything, but reverberates instead, without meaning to, we might suppose, a long-standing hatred of black people and their aspirations. To express doubt about the vote, especially this election season, in light of what we face now is beyond criticism: it is quite simply to embrace the inevitability of violence, and one should avoid flirtation with violence unless she is willing to put herself in its path. Anything less is an act of bad faith; I would go so far as to say that the failure to cast a vote at the coming midterms is an immoral act for at least two reasons that might go without saying, but bear repeating nonetheless: the meaning of suffrage for generations of African-Americans and the suffering that it has exacted over the decades and the certain danger that the current presidency and a treasonous, complicit Republican congressional majority pose to the United States and the world. Do we need to count the ways that we are doubtless threatened?

When I was a child, I not only spoke as one, but imagined like a child, too—a sauce pan, for instance, turned upside down made a really great hat—shining and irrepressible, cocked upside the head to the left, or the right; fabulous for a stately procession; the family’s beautiful mahogany console housed a radio with a green light in it, and if you squeezed yourself behind the device and examined the exposed radio tubes in it, you watched as they were suddenly dissolved in your mind’s eye into the skyline of a good-size city that you were taking in from a bird’s eye-view; if you stood a mop head up and drew a face on its handle, you had a pretty good doll for a day, especially if your father, or a sibling, whittled down the handle. In this world of discovery and surprise and everyday objects charged with magic, a word like “treason” signaled a remoteness light years away; in fact, it was a “school” word about as close to a little four- to seven -year old black girl’s reality as eighteenth-century images of white guys in tri-cornered hats, crossing the Delaware (wherever that was!), except that one of them was oddly named “Benedict Arnold,” who was not a very nice guy, we were told, and nowhere near “George Washington,” “who never told a lie.” Somebody cut down a cherry tree and, asked about it, ‘fessed up. (Or was that Abe Lincoln?) But this “treason” business started growing up, too, not unlike its young host body, as its next iteration was closer in both time and space to that of the school children—it was the Civil War and “seceding” states from the “Union.” Why would “they,” including the state where our young lady lived then and now, do that? Ah! And she learns that “history hurts.” And at that precise moment, one put away childish things, even though Emmett Till, my contemporary, was child enough. One day, long after, the end of a line in the presidential oath of office caught my attention, in fact, it quite astonished me—to defend the United States against “all enemies, foreign and domestic.” But is it possible for the “enemy” to be domestic? And what if it is? I thought I’d never live to see the day when I would have to ask myself that question and to wonder what the citizen’s duty might be in the realization that it is not only possible, but under certain circumstances, as appears to be the case at present, quite likely. And here we are, faced with the actual possibility now that the long-deferred democracy we have labored toward is poised to take a blow that could permanently end it. If voting could stave it off, who would refuse? Hold that thought.

1 Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896(New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Introduction, 1.