Confusion, once established, can be extremely difficult to unseat. This is especially so where skills of critical evaluation are lacking.
The desire to return to times when one stood on ground of greater surety, the past, is more a reflection of the unresolved tension in facing the ever unfolding future than it is a true reflection of the past’s illusory certainty.
I am reading The New Jim Crow in preparation for a class that I teach on inequality and social policy. As I read I keep thinking to myself, “This is why Black people emigrate from America.” I know that emigration is no panacea (believe me I do), but the U.S. has been and continues to be such an abominable expression of the dehumanization of African people.
What’s more, we are presented with (sham) democracy as one solution to our problems, yet little historical evidence suggests that this has ever been consequential in us improving our lot here. In fact we have yet to mount an effective response to the corrupting influence of neoliberal capitalism on the American political process so as to remove obstacles to the unfettered expression of our agency.
The most visible and vocal response that we have seen of late by African people to America’s continued odyssey of racial terror is the use of mass protest and civil disobedience. While these do have a place in movements for social change, they are also ill equipped to facilitate both a transformation of the political-economy of U.S. society or to provide the ideological and tactical instruments requisite for us to transform our communities. Impassioned appeals to or denunciations of a recalcitrant foe will not bring about their undoing. In the end, when the emotional fervor has inevitably exhausted itself, we will be back where we started.
Our history at the end of the 19th Century demonstrates two responses wherein community formation were central to our resistance to White racist tyranny. The formation of independent communities was one. This was a dynamic solution that saw the establishment of independent Black communities throughout the nation. This is something that we must study in order to understand the ideological and structural mechanisms that compelled these acts. While our capacity to do this today may seem limited due the capitally-intense nature of such an approach, we mustn’t dismiss the enormous waste that occurs in our slavish indulgence of America’s culture of mass-consumption. Money that could (re)build a Black economy now enriches the already super-rich.
Another response from over a century ago was emigration. But this was a far cry from what we see today, the movement of individuals and families to far-flung global destinations. Instead people sought to create societies and communities for those who dared to leave the U.S. Of course these efforts abounded by contradictions, which must also be studied. However they do offer lessons. Moreover, the centuries’ old ideal of African American’s resettling abroad is gaining new traction as many seek to relocate their bodies and their human capital elsewhere. A particularly compelling potential manifestation of this might be the creation of a modern community on the continent that acts as a beacon for diasporic Africans that provides assistance in such tangible areas as resettlement, housing, entrepreneurship, education, and the like. The formation of a single community of this kind or of several would be an interesting signpost of the maturation of the emigration strategy in modern times.
I will close with an excerpt from a book chapter that I’m writing on Du Bois and Woodson that aptly captures our past and present, but hopefully not our future. “Du Bois and Woodson recognized that Black people, as ever, stand at the precipice, facing on one side a familiar tyranny and on the other a new world that exists just beyond the bounds of our knowing and the fruits of our unfettered social agency.”
I just watched The Birth of a Nation with a local rites-of-passage program that I help to coordinate. The film is quite riveting. I did not watch it expecting a historically accurate rendition of the life of Nat Turner. I expected it to do what I have seen similar films accomplish such as Malcolm X, Panther, Quilombo, Besouro, and so on–that is to offer a depiction of historical events based only partially on the documented history, while providing a generous degree of creative embellishments. One benefit that films like this offer are that they often provide a basis for communal dialog. In this sense this film has not disappointed.
As it relates to the plot, the film does a great job of capturing the depth to which Africans struggled to sustain their humanity within a monstrous system. The beauty, complexity, and tragedy of African life during the period was captured in ways that were deeply compelling. The dramatization of the fictionalized Nat Turner moving from being a child possibly destined for war, to learning how to read, to his growing disillusionment within the institution of enslavement, to his ultimate choice to take up arms against it was wonderfully dramatized. The depiction of this particular journey is augmented via the clear struggle of Nate Parker’s Nat Turner between finding comfort and nominal acceptance within the barbarity of chattel enslavement or becoming a voice and instrument of his people’s deliverance. The emotive dimension of armed struggle as a process of not only the exacting of vengeance, but asserting one’s collective right to self-determination was captured in ways that unfolded rather vividly.
The film employed a range of visual devices that captured the dynamic expression and retention of traditional African cultural practices in the Americas. Though the historical accuracy of these as it relates to the life of the historic Nat Turner is questionable, this portrayal is situated within the actuality of African spiritual, language, artisan, artistic, and cosmological retentions in the Americas. These depictions, particularly the ones of traditional African spirituality that intersect with the young Nat, are a reflection of the paths of the many other men and women who viewed enslavement as wholly illegitimate and intolerable, and as such resolved to confront and destroy it, whose works and deeds were often preceded by invocations of various African ancestors and divinities reflective of war and bravery.
Though their victories were incomplete, after all few victories were as complete as the Haitian revolution, they did serve to inspire subsequent generations. The names of these determined ancestors were spoken on the tongues of the living, giving resonance and relevance to their spirits among those who would follow in their footsteps. They, as Nat Turner, became more than martyrs for the cause of African redemption, they become symbols of backs unbent, minds not destroyed, and souls not broken. They became symbols of resistance. They illustrated the words of Fred Hampton, that “you can “kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution”. Their ascension to the realm of symbolic representation made them immortal. Thus their works, their deeds still stir the imagination. They remain exemplars of ancestral instruction.
This is not a perfect film. But it is one that may yet keep the thought and spirit of African liberation in our hearts and minds. The historic Nat Turner was compelled to move against the dehumanization of his people by what he witnessed, what he knew to be true, and his faith that the struggle for justice would inevitably be rewarded by victory. His struggle existed in the liminal space between that which was improbable and that which was imperative. The improbable eradication of an intolerable reality was an imperative that he did not, could not ignore. All missteps aside, The Birth of a Nation makes this unequivocally clear. It reminds us of Nat Turner’s sacrifice and symbolic significance today. The historical Nat Turner’s legacy challenges us to both ask and answer “What future, if any, do African people have outside of the mandates of the oppressive system that began in chattel slavery, continued under state-sponsored racial subordination (Jim Crow), and on to the system of mass-incarceration today?”
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The attainment of an emancipatory ideal in this system is, as Derrick Bell attested, unattainable.
Central to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson was an on-going investigation of the context of terror visited upon Black bodies (Du Bos 2007a; Woodson 1990). For these scholars the assault upon African humanity was not merely a localized dilemma isolated to a marginal epoch of American history, rather it was a central process in the creation of America’s racialized social order, and beyond this, a key component in the modern global system wherein the humanity of African people was a secondary consideration to their utility as vehicles of or impediments to the acquisition of capital (Du Bois 2007b; Woodson 1990, 2004). Both Du Bois’s and Woodson’s work compels for us to look at the context of enslavement as a foundational moment in the erection of the contemporary power of the west. This process propelled the expansion and entrenchment of a domestic colonial project, in addition to fueling subsequent processes of conquest abroad. Within the domestic milieu, the political-economy of Black subordination via the system of state-sponsored racial subordination necessitated the implementation of an epistemic regime of terror (Du Bois 1978a, 1978b). This process has maintained a dual focus consisting of the oppression of Black bodies via instruments of coercive control, and the subjugation of Black minds via processes of mis-education (Du Bois 2002, Woodson 1990).
What must be asked is not whether this campaign has abated (it has not), but rather how a liberatory form of Black education might more effectively resist this assault? Du Bois and Woodson recognized that Black people, as ever, stand at the precipice, facing on one side a familiar tyranny and on the other a new world that exists just beyond the bounds of our knowing and the fruits of our unfettered social agency. As Du Bois queried in 1960, we must ask again, whither now and why (Du Bois 1973b)? Ultimately we must ponder to what extent has realization of liberation been obscured via the highly efficacious management of Black bodies and minds in the schools of America (Du Bois 1973a; Woodson 1933)?
“The present day Negro or ‘colored’ intellectual is no less a liar and a cunning thief than his illustrious teacher. His occidental collegiate training only fits him to be a rogue and vagabond, and a seeker after the easiest and best by following the line of least resistance. ”
–Marcus Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey
I recently learned of a t-shirt that shows a derivation of the word Htp and precedes to link the term with a range of problematic behaviors which are counter-productive to the interests of the Black community. I wonder how many people will wear the shirt, but can’t read this text below:
. This is the word Htp. It is a noun, and is defined by Dr. Rkhty Amen in her book Mejat Wefa as “Offerings, satisfaction, peace, greetings.”
I’m all for critiquing shallow and superficial thinking, but the term Htp (some pronounce it hotep or hetep) emerged out of one of the most vibrant Black intellectual movements of the late 20th Century. It was but one of a host of concepts borrowed from Nile Valley Culture and Civilization that was used in an attempt to understand more deeply the grand historical and cultural arc of African people as captured in the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and others. It was utilized as one small means of reviving the language of kmt or ancient Egypt, a language which Diop and Theophile Obenga shows exhibits strong connections with extant African languages. Diop’s research noted the same thing with regards to the culture of kmt and corresponding practices in pre-colonial and modern African cultures. In this way, ancient Egypt can be viewed as a vital component in the historical chain of events linking people of African descent today to their ancient past.
That this term is also used by some people who may be limited in their understanding or commitment to broader visions of social transformation does not invalidate the original thrust that gave rise to the invocation of terms such as Htp in the 1970s and 1980s from scholars such as Jacob H. Carruthers, Rkhty Amen, and so many others. Nor does it make these specious derivations (hotepping, hoteps, etc.) the most logical, appropriate, or intelligent terms to critique contradictory behaviors born of our shared oppression. Decolonizing one’s consciousness requires a new language, and can be achieved without a visceral and ahistorical rejection of one’s past.
Like a body that rejects a transplanted organ, so too has America continuously repulsed any effort to reconcile the contradictions inherent in its inception—its allegiance to white supremacy in the face of its vaunted democratic ideals. The hard-fought independence won at the end of the 18th Century, the attempt to erect a legal framework ensuring a limited racial equity after the Civil War, and the Civil Rights victories of the mid-20th Century all reveal themselves to have been illusory in so far as the status of African Americans is concerned.
The backlash against these progressive gains and the general institutionalization of a truly multi-racial democracy are not just the features of a bygone era. They live in the dogged pursuit of alleged voter fraud that results in recurring challenges to African American voters, the provision of insufficient polling places that serves to discourage Black voters during major elections, partisan redistricting that reduces African American voting power, the invocation of racist hostility in the form of xenophobia and recalcitrant opposition to the generally moderate presidency of a man of African descent, the antipathy towards the mild suggestion that Black life has some value necessitating reform of policing practices, the transformation of the Black community into an open air prison via processes of mass-incarceration and policing practices that amount to racialized containment, the dismantling of the state apparatus which disproportionally affects African American lower and working class citizens, the denial of capital to African American communities, the targeting of Black borrowers for high-interest home loans, the pervasive underemployment and unemployment of African Americans, the generalized and institutionalized failure of schools serving Black communities, and on, and on, and on.
The American body has rejected a retrofitted “racial tolerance” and the call to move beyond pretense to actual democracy. The vitriolic rhetoric of politicians about Muslims, Mexicans, and African American activists are not novel occurrences in and of themselves. They are an echo of another time, a time that, far from resembling the horror that was the lived experience of many people of color in general and Black people in particular, is reconfigured as a halcyon mirage of idyllic tranquility, where naked racialized terror was but one instrument of White dominion. The appeals to that past are also an invitation for its return. After all, it was never truly rejected, simply asked to stand aside while the sham of a multi-racial democracy was momentarily instantiated, undermined, and then summarily dismissed as untenable due to the incompatibility of the American body with the incessant demands for an honest redress of its past and present misdeed
But like any body that rejects a transplant, the American body does so at its own peril. The fervor to embrace a virulent, racist past encoded as a restoration of greatness and order, is also an appeal to a profound simplicity, the notion that reactionary ideology is sufficient to solve the deep structural problems born of decades of deindustrialization, disinvestment in the public sector, privatization of state assets, the slow erosion of civil liberties, resource scarcity, militarism, and climate change is beyond foolhardy—it is madness. But America, in the abyss of madness masked as courageous defiance, may mistake lunacy for reason, after all the howling mob is invariably convinced of the rightness of its actions. To this, many a decimated Black soul can attest.