"Black memory is often at odds with state memory."
"The function of the curriculum is to structure what we call 'consciousness,' and therefore certain behaviors and attitudes."
Sylvia Wynter, Proud/Flesh Interview with Sylvia Wynter
Jared Sexton's generative article "Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts" addresses critical issues facing Black Studies today and he begins from the place of understanding that "blackness is theory itself, anti-blackness the resistance to theory." In my response I take up some of those threads and move in two hopefully related directions both of which are opened up by the work. The first direction is one in which I briefly think through the state of black studies at my own university and in the second I think through Sexton's understanding of black social life in, under, and as black social death in relation to my ongoing engagement with the work of the Black Trinidadian Canadian lesbian novelist, poet, activist, theorist Dionne Brand.
For some people in and outside of the U. S. academy black studies is, still, the antithesis of theory, the antithesis of thinking. To juxtapose black and studies is to (still) join (in thinking) the un-thinkable. I am writing this response in the midst of ongoing struggles at my own university about whether, how, in what form to institute Africana Studies and whether that institutionalization will take the shape of an established major, a program with a major, or a department with a major. This struggle feels old but also strangely new and possibly generative in the kinds of questions it poses, the kinds of questions that might be asked, and the kinds of answers that might be given at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century. What is black studies (now)? What is the object of black studies (now)? What is the state of black studies (now)? Why (do you want) black studies (or Africana studies) (now)? What use black studies (now) in the current university? Should there (still) be some standalone thing called Africana Studies/Black Studies or should this work locate itself within something broadly conceived of as Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity? Or alternately should this work be located under some variety of a methodological critical analytical umbrella? Occupying the same time/space as the struggle over how the set of knowledges and practices gathered under Black or Africana Studies will be organized and not specific to my institutional residence is the struggle in and around and over what used to be or may still be called Women's Studies. In that instance of knowledge and curricular restructuring, sometimes "women" still appears in the title as in some form of "Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies," but often these interdisciplinary units are now called some form of Gender Studies or Gender and Sexuality studies. My point here is not so much to lament that change (though we might want to) as to ask why Women's Studies and, in particular, the word women embraced so belatedly are now turned away from so quickly in the name of something else under which "women" can be one category of what is thought? In other words, at the very least this change and these struggles signal that rather than possibly being seen as generative theoretically capacious terms by those who would locate their scholarship and teaching there, rather than being centers from and through which one can understand the workings of power and the worlds we inhabit and are riven and inhabited by, it is imagined (now) that much or most can’t be thought, theorized, or imagined under the sign of Women or Black (or Africana).
That tension is evident in the series of questions that Sexton asks and that he identifies as arising out of his research, his institutional context, and the undergraduate and graduate courses that he teaches. Questions that: "though they have been around for some time now, remain relatively young in the historic instance: Are there multiple forms or species of racism or simply variations of a fundamental structure? If it is the latter, what provides the model or matrix (colonialism, slavery, anti-Semitism)? Or is racism, rather, a singular history of violent conjunctures? Can anti-racist politics be approached in ways that denaturalize the color line, retain the specificities of discrepant histories of racialization, and think through their relational formation?" I add two additional questions that arise out of my own institutional context and that are at least one strand of the impetus behind sustained, multi-year student organizing for the various intellectual enterprises that constitute black studies: Will the fact of black studies ameliorate the quotidian experiences of terror in black lives lived in an anti-black world? And, if not, what will be the relationship between the two?
Sexton's remarks in "Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts" are a response to and they predate and extend a conversation with a 2006 symposium he organized at University of California, Irvine called Black Thought in the Age of Terror. This work continues his ongoing, rigorous conversation and engagement with the works of Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Hortense Spillers, Lewis Gordon, Frank Wilderson II, David Marriott and others in the field of black studies and, especially and in particular, with their study of the ongoing effects of slavery, its 'afterlife' (Hartman 2007). In laying out the tensions between "afro-pessimism" and "black optimism," Sexton is thinking the afterlife of slavery across the fields of cultural studies and comparative race and ethnic studies alongside the struggle that might seem to be internal to the field of black studies. He "wagers" (the ante) "that the details of what might seem at first to be a highly technical dispute in a small corner of the American academy will reveal themselves to be illuminating comments on the guiding assumptions and operative terms of the field of black studies particularly and the range of cultural studies more generally, both in and beyond the United States" (Sexton "Ante-Anti"). That is, he wagers that really contending with the figure of the slave('s life and death) will shift foundationally what we presume to know about slavery and its extending and extensive worlds.
Sexton makes clear that the critical insistence on the existence of black social life would have to be contended with amidst claims on and claims of the continuing relevance and persistence of black social death and vice-versa. But as this work also makes clear the existence of black social life in all of its modalities does not alter the fact of black social death. That black life is not recognized as life (or life lived) on the order of other lives. (This articulation is adjacent to Sylvia Wynter's theorizing in relation to both "race" and "gender" as "genre" which is another way to speak about the human (non black) and the anti-human (black) (See Wynter ProudFlesh, 2003).
What, then, is the relationship of the ante to anti-blackness: is it one of time (priority) or position (before or in front of), a wager, a demand to pay (up) or a marker of the stakes, the risk, the cost (and benefits) of anti- blackness? All of the above? The both/and instead of the either/or? It seems to me that it is the both-ness or perhaps the all-ness of those relationships that is the pivot (the copula) at the heart of Sexton's Ante-Anti-Blackness. The hyphens mark a not irresolvable distinction and they are a holding at bay, a horizontalization of relations, a holding on to, and a setting out of the question (of indisputable black suffering and the straining against it) that is the "agreed upon point where arguments (should) begin, but they cannot (yet) proceed" (Sexton "Ante-Anti"). And it is this tremendous capacity to think together, to draw out the often overlooked and passed over, to hold in tension, and then to advance a careful and ethical argument that I find so very useful and necessary about Sexton's work. His work in this and other articles, as well as in Amalgamation Schemes, has opened up and made possible certain spaces for and lines of re/thinking in and in relation to my own work. It is work that insistently speaks what is being constituted as the unspeakable and enacts an ethical embrace of what is constituted as (affirmatively) unembraceable.
The Door and the ontology of blackness
"I think it [A Map to the Door of No Return] asks a fundamental question, which is not just a question for me or for Africans in the Diaspora, but the question of being. How existence is constructed for you."
Dionne Brand interview with Maya Mavjee. "Opening the Door: An Interview with Dionne Brand" (emphasis mine).
As I think about Jared Sexton's work and what his intensive line of theorizing of anti/blackness opens up for me I turn back to Dionne Brand and, in particular, to her 2001 work A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. At the center of that work, Brand's meditation on the black body and questions of belonging and her understanding that "the frame of the doorway is the only space of true existence" (18), is a desire to account for the no/place, power, vulnerability, and the complex materiality of the body raced as black. It is a desire produced in the wake of the door of no return, that "collective phrase for the places, the ports, where slaves were taken to be brought to the Americas" (Mavjee "An Interview with Dionne Brand," 2001). A Map to the Door begins with "A Circumstantial Account of a State of Things," as it records the narrator's attempt to reckon with a series of circumstances and silences historical and personal that stand in the place of a record of how she has come to be and live in the place she is—Guayaguayare, Trinidad. At thirteen years old, the narrator tries to will her grandfather into remembering what he cannot remember and what he refuses to lie about—the name of the "people they came from." Instead of a name that would stand in for an account, the adolescent Brand encounters a lacuna and what is unnamed and unremembered signifies "a tear in the world," and "a rupture in history, a rupture in the quality of being" that is nevertheless productive of new modes of (not) being and (not) seeing (Brand 2001, 5). For Brand "the door of no return is on her retina" as an optic that guides her way of seeing, understanding, and accounting for her place in the world (Brand 2001, 89).
The door signifies the historical moment which colours all moments in the Diaspora. It accounts for the ways we observe and are observed as people, whether it's through the lens of social injustice or the lens of human accomplishments. The door exists as an absence. A thing in fact which we do not know about, a place we do not know. Yet it exists as the ground we walk. Every gesture our body makes somehow gestures toward this door. What interests me primarily is probing the Door of No Return as consciousness. The door casts a haunting spell on personal and collective consciousness in the Diaspora. Black experience in any modern city or town in the Americas is a haunting. One enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives. Where one stands in a society seems always related to this historical experience. Where one can be observed is relative to that history. All human effort seems to emanate from this door. How do I know this? Only by self-observation, only by looking. Only by feeling. Only by being a part, sitting in the room with history (Dionne Brand 2001, 24-25).
When Brand writes this she locates the real and mythic door of no return as an optic and a haunting that continues to construct and position black people in the "new world." For Brand that un/known door is the frame that produces black bodies as signifiers of enslavement and its (unseeable) excesses; it is the beginning, the ontology, of the black. It is the ground that positions black bodies to bear the burden of that signification, and that positions some black people to know and embrace it. This is, Brand's work powerfully exemplifies Sexton's extension of Gordon's reading of Fanon's acceptance of himself defined as pathological "by a world that knows itself through that imposition." An acceptance that "though it may appear counter-intuitive, or rather because it is counter-intuitive, ... is active; it is a willing or willingness, in other words, to pay whatever social costs accrue to being black, to inhabiting blackness, to living a black social life under the shadow of social death. This is not an accommodation to the dictates of the anti-black world. The affirmation of blackness, which is to say an affirmation of pathological being, is a refusal to distance oneself from blackness in a valorization of minor differences that bring one closer to health, life, or sociality" (Sexton "Ante-Anti").
Put another way, this is the modality in which Brand's works work so powerfully: the modality of exploring the various and varied black lives lived under occupation, the modality of black (social) life lived in, as, under, in spite of black (social) death. I read Brand alongside Sexton as mapping and creating a language for thinking, for articulating black (social) life lived alongside, under, and in the midst of the ordinary and extraordinary terror of enforced black social death.
Brand's work reaches toward a language of longing but not belonging, toward a language that expresses what it is to be subjected and to live through subjection. And part of the reason that I've returned to Brand again and again and to the body of Sexton's work is because of her, their, ability to stand looking at the door and to build a language that, despite the rewards and enticements to do otherwise, refuses to refuse blackness, that embraces "without pathos" that which is constructed and defined as pathology (Sexton "Ante-Anti").
Brand, Dionne. 2001. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Random House.
Hanchard, Michael. "Black Memory versus State Memory: Notes to a Method." Small Axe Number 26, vol. 12(2): 45-62.
Mavjee, Maya. "Opening the Door: An Interview with Dionne Brand," Read Magazine, 2001.
Morrison, Toni. 1987. Beloved. New York: Plume.
Sexton, Jared. "Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts."
Wynter, Sylvia. ProudFlesh Inter/Views: Sylvia Wynter. ProudFlesh: New Afrikan Journal of Culture, Politics, and Consciousness.