Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates' book on the Obama years (We Were Eight Years in Power, 2017) attracted the scorn of Cornell West. Coates' earlier book, Between the World and Me (2015), is a bestseller. In the form of a letter to his son, the book tells his journey of his own experiences and reflections of being Black in America. A few notes from that 2015 work:

"the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible." (p. 9)"Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later. I suffered at the hands of both, but I resent the schools more." (p. 25)

"Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life - love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehorses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?" (p. 32)

"We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was interior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior." (p. 43-44)

"A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and traditions, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. "Black-on-black crime" is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return." (p. 110)

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The Fire Next Time

Notes from Baldwin's 1962 two essays in The Fire Next Time, the first a letter to his nephew and the second a longer piece that reflects on engagements with faith and identity:

"Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?" (p. 94)

"Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity." (p. 7)

"The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear." (p. 8)

"Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue." (p. 51)

"The word "independence" in Africa and the word "integration" here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free. And both of these last statements are undeniable facts, related facts, containing the gravest implications for us all." (p. 87)

"I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand—and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible." (p. 104)

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Critique of Black Reason

Achille Mbembe is a Cameroonian philosophy, based at WistU in South Africa. He has authored a number of influential works (such as Necropolitics), but given the importance of his works, is not as widely read and taught as he should be. Fortunately for English readers, his two recent books have been translated by published by Duke University Press. This post reflects on "Critique of Black Reason" (2013 original, 2017 translation). For anyone learning about, teaching, or researching race, this is essential reading.

"race does not exist as a physical, anthropological, or genetic fact. But it is not just a useful fiction, a phantasmagoric construction, or an ideological projection whose function is to draw attention away from conflicts judged to be more real - the struggle between classes or genders, for example. In many cases race is an autonomous figure of the real whose force and destiny can be explained by its characteristic mobility, inconstancy, and capriciousness. It wasn't all that long ago, after all, that the world was founded on an inaugural dualism that sought justification in the old myth of racial superiority. In its avid need for myths through which to justify its power, the Western world considered itself the center of the earth and the birthplace of reason, universal life, and the truth of humanity." (p. 11)

"Three historical determinants, then, explain the power and the fantasy of Whiteness. First of all, there were many who believed in it. But far from being spontaneous, the belief was cultivated, nourished, reproduced, and disseminated by a set of theological, cultural, political, economic, and institutional mechanisms whose evolution and implications over the centuries have been carefully analyzed by critical theorists of race. In several regions of the world, a great deal of work went into transforming Whiteness into a dogma and a habitus..." (p. 45)

"To reread Fanon today is also to take on for ourselves, in our own conditions, some of the questions he never ceased to ask of his own time, questions related to the possibility for subjects and peoples to stand up, walk with their own feet, use their own hands, faces, and bodies to write their own histories as part of a world that we all share, to which we all have a right, to which are are all heirs. If there is one thing that will never die in Fanon, it is the project of the collective rise of humanity. In his eyes, this irrepressible and implacable quest for liberty required the mobilization of all of life's reserves. Each human subject, and each people, was to engage in a grand project of self-transformation, in a struggle to the death, without reserve. They had to take it on as their own. They could not delegate it to others." (p. 162)

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Achille Mbembe is not as well-known as he should be. One reason is that much of his work is written in French (although more translations are becoming available). I suspect this Cameroonian philosopher and critical scholar will become increasingly well-known in the years to come. This is essential reading (as is his Critique of Black Reason, which I will post about soon). Here I share some notes from his "Necropolitics" (original in French published in 2016, and the English translation published by Duke was published in 2019):

"… war is determined as an end and necessity not only in democracy but also in politics and in culture. War has become both remedy and poison – our pharmakon. Its transformation into the pharmakon of our time has, in turn, let loose gruesome passions that are increasingly pushing our societies to exit democracy and, as was the case under colonization, to transform into societies of enmity." (p. 3)

"His [Fanon's] advice to colonized persons who refused castration was to turn their backs on Europe; in other words, he suggested that one begin with oneself and stand tall outside the categories that brought one to bow and scrape. The difficult involved not only one's being assigned a race but one's internalizing of the terms of this assignation, that is, one's coming to the point of desiring and becoming the accomplice of castration. For everything, or nearly everything, encouraged colonized peoples to inhabit as their skin and their truth the fiction that the Other had produced in their regard." (p. 5)

"Civil peace in the West thus depends in large part on inflicting violence far away, on lighting up centers of atrocities, and on the fiefdom wars and other massacres that accompany the establishment of strongholds and trading posts around the four corners of the planet… the fulfillment of these new desires depended on institutionalizing a regime of inequality at the planetary scale." (p. 19-20)

"The history of modern democracies gets painted as though it reduces to a history internal to Western societies, as if, closed in on themselves and closed to the world, these societies confined themselves to the narrow limits of their immediate environment. Well, never has this been the case. The triumph of modern democracy in the West coincides with the period of its history during which this region of the world was engaged in a two-fold movement of internal consolidation and expansion across the seas. The history of modern democracy is, at bottom, a history with two faces, and even two bodies…" (p. 22)

"… this law aimed at 'humanizing' war. It emerged just as the 'war of brutalization' in Africa was in full swing. The modern laws of war were first formulated during the Conventions in Brussels in 1874, and then at The Hague in 1899 and 1907. But the development of international principles on the subject of war did not necessarily change the conduct of European powers on the ground. Such was the case yesterday; such is the case today." (p. 25)

'The colonial world, as an offspring of democracy, was not the antithesis of the democratic order. It has always been its double, or, again, its nocturnal face. No democracy exists without its double, without its colony – little matter the name and the structure. The colony is not external to democracy and is not necessarily located outside its walls. Democracy bears the colony within it, just as colonialism bears democracy, often in the guise of a mask." (p. 26-27)

"The domain of objects and machines, as much as capital itself, is increasingly presented in the guise of an animistic religion. Everything is put into question up to and including the status of truth. Certainties and convictions are held to be the truth. Reason needs not be employed. Simply believing and surrendering oneself is enough. As a result, public deliberation, which is one of democracy's essential features, no longer consists in discussing and seeking collectively, before the eyes of all citizens, the truth, and ultimately, justice." (p. 55)

"… if they really persist in wanting to live next to us, in our home, they should have their pants down, rears out in the open. Nanoracism defines an era of scullion racism, a sort of pocketknife racism, a spectacle of pigs wallowing in the mud pit. Its function is to turn each of us into billy-goat leather mercenaries. It consists in placing the greatest number of those that we regard as undesirable in intolerable conditions, to surround them daily, to inflict upon them, repeatedly, an incalculable number of racist jabs and injuries, to strip them of all their acquired rights, to smoke them out of their hives and dishonor them until they are left with no choice but to self-deport." (p. 58)

"That the technologies which produced Nazism originated in the plantation or in the colony, or that – Foucault's thesis – Nazism and Stalinism actually only amplified a series of already extant mechanisms of Western European social and political formations (subjugation of the body, health regulations, social Darwinism, eugenics, medicolegal theories on heredity, degeneration, and race) is, in the end, irrelevant. Yet one fact remains: in modern philosophical thought and in the imaginary and practice of European politics, the colony represents a site in which sovereignty fundamentally consists in exercising a power outside the law …" (p. 76)

"If yesterday the modern rational subject's raison de vivre was to fight against myth, superstition, and obscurantism, the work of reason nowadays is to allow for different modes of seeing and measuring to appear. It is to help human subjects to properly identify the threshold that distinguishes between the calculable and the incalculable, the quantifiable and the unquantifiable, the computable and the incomputable. It is to help them understand that technologies of calculation, computation, and quantification do present us with one world among many actual and possible worlds. Therefore, as Pasquinelli argues, different modes of measuring will open up the possibility of different aesthetics, of different politics of inhabiting the Earth, and, we may add, of sharing the planet." (p. 113)

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