A final post on Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract (here you can find posts one and two, though I warn you they are hell of long). Because a third strand of my work on race and space is also on violence and hegemony’s uneasy balance between coercion and consent, I was pretty enthusiastic about these sections. Mills doesn’t really use the language of Gramsci, but he explores this area with great insight that parallels one of my favourite thinkers:
In seeking first to establish and later to reproduce itself, the racial state employs the two traditional weapons of coercion: physical violence and ideological conditioning. (83)
You wield these weapons in the context of white supremacy, and of course you get a prominence of domination against nonwhites:
The coercive arms of the state, then–the police, the penal system, the army–need to be seen as in part the enforcers of the Racial Contract, working both to keep the peace and prevent crime among the white citizens, and to maintain the racial order and detect and destroy challenges to it, so that across the white settler states nonwhites are incarcerated at differential rates and for longer terms. (84)
Of course this is part of the consent-building process of whites. Thus (many, but not all) whites (because here is where class really becomes a bitch) see police as their protectors, but for others?
There is a well-known perception in the black community that the police–particularly in the jim crow days of segregation and largely white police forces–were basically an “army of occupation.” (85)
This may have been more prevalent back in the day, but you will hear it plenty now, and you can see it too. But violence never was restricted to the police, and it never occurred to me to trace white mob violence, vigilante violence all the way back this, but it makes sense…
But official state violence is not the only sanction of the Racial Contract. In the Lockean state of nature, in the absence of a constituted juridical and penal authority, natural law permits individuals themselves to punish wrongdoers. (86)
That feels so innately American somehow, this tangled question of justice the subject of 90 percent of the Westerns I’ve ever seen. Maybe deep down they weren’t about cattle rustling at all, but lynching. I loved this sentence:
Patterns of systematic massacres when there have been shakes to the system of white supremacy, causing an ontological shudder, calling forth white terror… (86)
Thinking of the massacres, especially that red summer of 1919 and those pictures of whites smiling over tortured bodies of black men still smoking. Unrecognizable. This terror combined with a sliver of carrot, in a system that
Attempts not just to shape the ‘white citizen’ but also, in James Baldwin’s words, ‘only the Negro they wished to see.” (88)
There is a world of tragedy in the ways that even for nonwhites, this system can be internalised, come to be seen as ‘consensual’.
It is a powerful system of collective consent, one that works to maintain privilege through a particular exercise of morality. Mills describes how
the Racial Contract creates a racialized moral psychology. Whites will then act in racist ways while thinking of themselves as acting morally. In other words, they will experience genuine cognitive difficulties in recognizing certain behaviour patterns as racist… the Racial Contract prescribes, as a condition for membership in the polity, an epistemology of ignorance. (93)
This explains so much, why it just keeps going on and on…This explains, but is miles away from excusing, the absence of rigour in interrogating the dominant social and political systems.
By their failure to denounce the great crimes inseparable from the European conquest, or by the halfheartedness of their condemnation, or by the actual endorsement of it in some cases, most of the leading European ethical theorists reveal their complicity in the Racial Contract. (94)
He also talks about the ways that this continues to deform theory, particularly any with pretence to liberation if they don’t root out these structures from the beginning:
The actual details of the basic values of the particular normative theory (property rights, personhood and respect, welfare) are not important, since all theories can be appropriately adjusted internally to bring about the desired outcome: what is crucial is the theorist’s adherence to the Racial Contract. (96)
Yep. I won’t go into Kant again, but damn. So ultimately this system has shaped the broad white experience in incredibly damaging ways. It has ensured that they:
a) take for granted the appropriateness of concepts legitimizing the racial order, privileging them as the master race… and later the appropriateness of concepts that derace the polity, denying its actual racial structuring.
b) Because of the reciprocally dependent definitions of superior whiteness and inferior nonwhiteness, whites may consciously or unconsciously assess how they’re doing by a scale that depends in part on how nonwhites are doing
c) because the Racial Contract requires the exploitation of nonwhites, it requires in whites the cultivation of patterns of affect and empathy that are only weakly, if at all, influenced by nonwhite suffering. (95)
It is this that I find hardest to understand, the white inability to see anything but thugs when the pictures of children shot by police or vigilantes are set in front of them. I can’t understand their inability to mourn these deaths, demand change. But, like Wendell Berry’s writing I think, this helps explain just how the mind and heart could become so twisted. Mills writes of ‘partitioned moral concern’, and ‘moralities of exclusion’. Segregation lies at the heart of empathy and rationality, not just between homes and lived realities. But to believe yourself moral, while at the same time living a life that is deeply unjust because of its structural foundations, well, that takes some work.
Evasion and self-deception thus become the epistemic norm. (97)
Just to deal with the horrors of conquest, slavery, ongoing massacres, the white life has to be placed higher and the nonwhite life devalued. So what is left as a way forward? First and foremost:
There is a choice for whites — to speak out and to struggle with its terms…
Second, understanding the importance of positionality:
The term “standpoint theory” is now routinely used to signify the notion that in understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be be accurate than one from the top down. What is involved here, then, is a “racial” version … a perspectival cognitive advantage (109)
Third? Embracing this, furthering our understanding of this so that it can be dismantled. To speak in cliche, becoming part of the solution.
There is obviously all the difference in the world between saying the system is basically sound despite some unfortunate racist deviations, and saying that the polity is racially structured, the state white-supremacist, and races themselves significant existents that an adequate political ontology needs to accommodate. So the dispute would be not merely about the facts but about why these facts have gone so long unapprehended and untheorized in white moral/political theory.
By its crucial silence on race and the corresponding capacities of its conventional conceptual array, the raceless social contracts and the raceless world of contemporary moral and political theory render mysterious the actual political issues and concerns that have historically preoccupied a large section of the world’s population. (124)
We have a choice.
The norming of space is partially done in terms of the racing of space, the depiction of space as dominated by individuals (whether persons or subpersons) of a certain race. At the same time, the norming of the individual is achieved by spacing it, that is, representing it as imprinted with the characteristics of a certain kind of space. So this is a mutually supporting characterization that, for subpersons, becomes a circular inditcment: “You are what you are in part because you originate from a certain kind of space, and that space has those properties in part because it is inhabited by creatures like yourself. (42)
There is so much here to unpack — this connection between our perceptions of a person and the place they are from. We all know how we judge and are judged. For many, it is a constant battle to escape the violence of such judgments, rooted in a dark and violent past. Rooted in Colonialism, conquest, genocide.
The Racial Contract in its early preconquest versions must necessarily involve the pejorative characterization of the spaces that need taming, the spaces in which the racial polities are eventually going to be constructed. … Creating the civil and the political here thus requires an active spatial struggle (this space is resistant) against the savage and the barbaric, an advancing of the frontier against opposition, a Europeanization of the world. (43)
Conquest is necessarily a struggle over land and geography, and demands a spatial understanding of the world. The understanding created through years of colonialism was one of Europe as civilised, deserving to conquer (because if it didn’t advance it would surely be forced to retreat before brutal hordes) the rest of the savage world.
The battle against this savagery is in a sense permanent as long as the savages continue to exist… So it is not merely that space is normatively characterized on the macrolevel before conquest and colonial settlement, but that even afterward, on the local level, there are divisions, the European city and the Native Quarter, Whitetown and Niggertown/Darktown, suburb and inner city. (47)
You see, we live with these divisions still.
Mills quotes David Theo Goldberg:
“Power in the polis, and this is especially true of racialized power, reflects and refines the spatial relations of its inhabitants.”
Part of the purpose of the color line/apartheid/jim crow is to maintain these spaces in their place, to have the checkerboard of virtue and vice, light and dark space, ours and theirs, clearly demarcated so that the human geography prescribed by the Racial Contract can be preserved.
This echoes Fanon’s observations of colonial world cut in two, the segregation that still exists in our cities, the divisions between deserving and undeserving that echo an early Christian world of vice and virtue alongside an emergent/protestant ethic of settlement and industry. The land should belong to white’s because they are the only ones who can make it fruitful. And the end result:
Since the Racial Contract links space with race and race with personhood, the white raced space of the polity is in a sense the geographical locus of the polity proper. (50)
Over and over again in racist texts is this idea of America as white, of citizens as white. Whites fought to defend this idea, and to live amongst their own (See Sugrue, Hirsch, Meyer and so many more).
Thus one of the interesting consequences of the Racial Contract is that the political space of the polity is not coextensive with its geographical space. In entering these (dark) spaces, one is entering a region normatively discontinuous with white political space, where the rules are different in ways ranging from differential funding (school resources, garbage collection, infrastructural repair) to the absence of police protection. (51)
Finally, there is the microspace of the body itself… The black body. The crazy amounts of fear and hate whites have invested in the skin of others. Mills draws a historical distinction between the old regime of Christian thought in which other races were still ‘salvageable’ and could still be saved until this shifted:
The new secular category of race, by contrast, which gradually crystallized over a century or so, had the virtue of permanency over any given individual’s lifetime. …
For the first time ‘slavery acquired a color. But for the colonial project in general, personhood would be raced, hence the concept of “subject races.” The crucial conceptual divide is between whites and nonwhites, persons and subpersons, though once this central cut has been made, other internal distinctions are possible… (57)
It is the Racial Contract that ‘constructs’ race as a group identity. Makes whiteness the norm. Toni Morrison has long pointed out that ‘Americanness’ has long meant whiteness:
deviation from which unfits one for full personhood and full membership in the polity. (54)
All of this, yet race has not been seen as central — and I know I explored this in the first post on the matter, particularly in relation to political theory and philosophy. Yet it is too often absent from geography too. I feel like this acknowledgment of what always seems to go unquestioned cannot be repeated enough:
Insofar as race is addressed at all within mainstream moral and political philosophy, it is usually treated in a footnote as a regrettable deviation from the ideal. But treating it in this way makes it seem contingent, accidental, residual, removes it from our understanding. Race is made to seem marginal when in fact race has been central. … we should say frankly that for whites the Racial Contract represented the ideal, and what is involved is not deviation from the (fictive) norm but adherence to the actual norm. (56)
It cannot be repeated enough that America has always been a white supremacist state:
for which differential white racial entitlement and nonwhite racial subordination were defining, thus inevitably molding white moral psychology and moral theorizing
It is built, like European conquest was built, on some strong philosophical foundations. Kant — I never though of Kant as the modern father of race, but Mills makes a good case for it. I’d never heard of Kant’s 1775 essay on ‘The Different Races of Mankind’, but there it is, for me to find and read. In the meantime, Mills writes:
The famous theorist of personhood is also the theorist of subpersonhood…as Eze points out, Kant taught anthropology and physical geography for forty years, and his philosophical work really has to be read in conjunction with these lectures to understand how racialized his views on moral character were. (70)
Of course, I have never heard of these lectures. Mills summarises some of Kant’s opinions, such as his feeling that there is
some hope for Asians, though they lack the ability to develop abstract concepts; the innately idle Africans can at least be educated as servants and slaves through the instruction of a split-bamboo cane (Kant gives some useful advice on how to beat Negroes efficiently); and the wretched Native Americans are just hopeless, and cannot be educated at all. (71)
Jesus. I thought I was getting to old and well-read for those moments when things you thought you knew give a great shake and fall.
So to return briefly to the differences between contracts: the social contract is always discussed and seen as a concrete event that happened at a specific time — or at least, that is how it is theorised. It’s important to understand that the Racial Contract actually exists, its construction can be witnessed over time, and by contrast to this once-upon-a-time moment theorised for the social contract,
…the Racial Contract is continually being rewritten to create different forms of the racial policy. (72)
This reminds me so much of Stuart Hall’s continual focus on the ‘work’ that racism is currently performing at any conjuncture — the importance of understanding how things shift and change to help those in power and privilege maintain that power and privilege. Two ways of theorising the same insight.
So in bringing this to bear on our history we see it transform:
In the first period, the period of de jure white supremacy, the Racial Contract was explicit, the characteristic instantiations — the expropriation contract, the slave contract, the colonial contract– making it clear that whites were the privileged race and the egalitarian social contract applied only to them.
In the second period, on the other hand, the Racial Contract has written itself out of formal existence. The scope of the terms in the social contract has been formally extended to apply to everyone, so that “persons” is no longer coextensive with “whites.”
But tensions remain ‘between continuing de facto white privilege and this formal extension of rights… a crucial manifestation is simply the failure to ask certain questions, taking for granted a status quo… (73)
This reminds me of the silences written about by Trouillot. These periodisations have been noted by Manning Marable, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West and others. These things seem so obvious, depending on where you stand.
To bring it back more fully to space, to geography, we leave the sphere of the nation and the body to look at the globe as a whole.
Globally, the Racial Contract effects a final paradoxical norming and racing of space, a writing out of the polity of certain spaces as … irrevalent. (74)
He quotes Frederick Jameson
Colonialism means that a significant structural segment of the economic system is now located elsewhere, beyond the metropolis, outside of the daily life and existential experience of the home country…Such spatial disjunction has as its immediate consequence the inability to grasp the way the system functions as a whole. (‘Modernism and Imperialism’, 1990)
Out of sight, out of mind and protection from knowledge of spatial exploitation becomes just another privilege enjoyed by those in the privileged spaces of the privileged nations.
So much here, such a short book.
[Mills, Charles W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.]
Up the Junction is one of my favourite Ken Loach films I think. It opens with all the jubilation of youth, of girls out on the town, meeting some boys, music and booze and happy chatter and dancing and that moment when you meet someone you really fancy for the first time. Those glorious moments. Sylvie (Carol White), Rube (Geraldine Sherman) and Eileen (Vickery Turner). From pub to pool to late-night drive — one of those nights you remember. These three friends for life.
Dave (Tony Selby once again, who was killed in the last Wednesday Play, Three Clear Sundays) takes Eileen up to the ruins where his old house used to be, cleared out with the rest of the slums and his family moved down south to Roehampton. Dave takes Eileen by the hand and climbs the pile of rubble. (But what strange magic prevents you from taking screen shots of movies these days? These glimpses are most unsatisfactory, I can’t believe no one else on the internet has obsessed about these scenes.)
Their kisses are framed against an empty window, and the crane behind them is for the demolition of the old ‘slums’ to build new council housing, not one of today’s huge cranes for massive developments. I suppose those must also sometimes be caught in a frame with working class teenage shenanigans, if there are any working class teens left in Battersea. It strikes me, though, quite forcibly, the contrast of these experiences of demolition and building between our generation and theirs.
I don’t know why but this was one of the most evocative series of scenes of the whole movie for me…
Forget it, I do know why. Houses lost and torn down and lives uprooted, and in the midst of this life and tragedy engendered anew? The symbolism is not lost on me. They kiss in the ruins, and it is followed by scenes of the final demolition: fireplaces and walls still covered with flowered paper stark against brick. A kid watching, face smeared with dirt.
Look at this haunting picture of a last remaining wall. Flowers lingering on the wallpaper, the outlines of rooms that once held families pried open to harsh gazes.
There is a narrative thread, but it is almost submerged within the brilliant samplings of conversations and the camera panning across faces. You are the perfect eavesdropper on multiple lives, from the kids dancing in the club at the opening, to the ladies chatting as they wash up the dishes. Again there is diversity (though these women of colour rarely get to speak). Amongst the women there exists a very different conviviality from what you see amongst the men. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes talking over manual work, from dishes to factories. Laughing. This is based on a novel by Nell Dunn — she and Ken Loach helped turn it into a screen play. She was not from Battersea herself, but lived here a while, worked in a factory a while. Perhaps that is why it still has a taste of nostalgia to it I think, a taste of idealisation, but perhaps it was just the amount that had to be sanitised for television.
It does have a great cover:
But to get back to the girls. Their conversations in amongst the snippets of conversations of multiple others all detailing the intimate details of their lives as they work making foil-wrapped chocolate santas and pistols, disjointed views of the process and the huge blocks of chocolate, the various (fascinating) machines with their whirring and clatter, the cups of tea, the chatter and the siles and always in the background the music of the 60s.
A packet of fags dropped in the chocolate. Dancing the twist to the latest. This is life at its best, no? At least until the boss comes. At least until you get the chatty money-collector who’s tired of ‘the coloureds’. He is talking and talking, god he won’t shut up.
I’ve been out with plenty of floozies in my time, but I’ll never mention my wife to ’em…
But I love the scenes as he drives through Clapham, the brick rows of houses and women in the doorways. The glasses and kerchiefs and passersby.
It is hard to imagine this long-ago London, when Battersea power station was a power station and not an obscenely expensive setting for luxury flats surrounded by glass and steel.
Hard to imagine some of these stories. Story after story of loves and relationships and babies and abortions and death. Heartbreak. new beginnings. Violent endings. Jokes.
Hard to imagine an abortion from a smiling sinister middle-aged women in the parlour, at a cost of four pounds. Hard to sit through a doctor talking about deaths and botched attempts and reeling off statistics. Rube walking through the woods in strange disjunction. Horrible clinical talk interspersed with testimony. I find this montage of voice and experience so powerful. The way that these moments rise up before us like icebergs and we crash into them.
And then, if we survive, they are behind us.
Back to the raucous and loud everyday, snogging and laughing and dancing down the pub. Though it’s not really all the same. But this is not a style of film that can really dig down into the ways we are broken and what we have to do to hold ourselves together.
Still I loved the women portrayed here. I love this form, with stories, so many stories, glimpses of more stories all set in surroundings that shape and are shaped by them. Surroundings now mostly lost. The three women at its centre just three among hundreds, thousands. Jokes and laughing and snippets of faces seen once and never again. Some of the lovely factory women who get a few more of their own stories, even a new love. Everyday life, poring over used clothes in a basket.
Everyday death, everyday commentary on the meaning of death. More jokes. Battersea Power station smoking as background for discussions of cremation.
It ends with Sugar and Spice and for me the song brought nostalgia for a time I never lived through, despite the fact that it is a kind of life I never wanted, that I fled from. But I loved watching them happy and walking down the London road. I wished them all the best.
Years ago my friend Ryan told me to read Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract, and it feels of central importance in my thinking now. Yet I bought it, and started it and put it down and did not pick it up again until recently. Too dry, too difficult, and contract law?
What an idiot I was.
This is a brilliant book, and perhaps my experience is testament to just how much reading philosophy and theory becomes easier with practice, but also, what an idiot. This would have been so useful for my thesis. But it is never too late. Going back over it, I kept thinking this nails it, this nails all of it. It is hardly a surprise that Charles Mills should be from Jamaica and have studied there, before moving to teach in the US (at present in NY at CUNY). This book is amazing, and my reflections in trying to write my way into grasping its essentials fill at least three posts, starting with the big picture.
White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. … But though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years. And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination… It is just taken for granted; it is the background against which other systems, which we are to see as political, are highlighted. (1-2)
Really that’s it in a nutshell, right? There is an under-representation of people of colour in philosophy and women, though the number of women has been increasing and have done more work to reconceptualise the field. Still, it remains very white and male, both cause and effect of the system we live within.
A word here at the beginning about how race is socially constructed, and the way that Mills avoids essentialising whiteness — any race could have done this.
Whiteness is not really a color at all, but a set of power relations. (127)
To explore this system of white supremacy, Mills uses the lens of the social contract — ubiquitous in explanations of our government and society just as the names of Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and America’s founding fathers are — but correcting for the fact that:
in its obfuscation of the ugly realities of group power and domination, it is, if unsupplemented, a profoundly misleading account of the way the modern world actually is and came to be. (3)
Mills hopes — and I echo that hope — that the racial contract as a lens can serve to bridge two segregated areas — mainstream ethics and political philosophy with the world of Native American, African American, and Third and Fourth world political thought and their focus on colonialism, imperialism, white settlement and etc. I am consistently frustrated with the way work becomes siloed, insights in one valuable arena of struggle and scholarship are lost, reinvented in another. But that’s another matter.
The Racial Contract is inspired by Carol Pateman’s feminist work The Sexual Contract. Have to read that. Both, go back to the ‘classic contractarians’: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant. Names I heard in high school, read in college. Haven’t really thought too much about since then.
Charles Mills is making three simple claims:
the existential claim — white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years; the conceptual claim — white supremacy should be thought of as itself a political system; the methodological claim — as a political system, white supremacy can illuminatingly be theorized as based on a “contract” between whites, a Racial Contract. (7)
They sound simple, but let me tell you, it’s a crazy racial rollercoaster from here with loads of ah-ha moments. So. Overview. At least, I do my best.
The racial contract is political, moral, and epistemological. (9)
Big words. I always forget what epistemological means, maybe one day I will remember. I need to start using it daily in sentences, which will make me so popular.
The racial contract sets up a moral hierarchy:
the general purpose of the Contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the nonwhites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it. (11)
That’s the key difference there — all whites benefit, even though all whites do not agree with its provisions or help with its maintenance. So we best be working to destroy it.
Never forget that the power in this contract sits all in one place:
It is a contract between those categorized as white over the nonwhites, who are thus the objects rather than the subjects of the agreement. (12)
And this racial contract establishes a racial state:
where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom. And the purpose of this state, by contrast with the neutral state of classic contractarianism, is, inter alia, specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order… Correspondingly, the “consent” expected of white citizens is in part conceptualized as a consent, whether explicit or tacit, to the racial order, to white supremacy, what could be called Whiteness… From the inception, then, race is in no way an “afterthought,” a “deviation” from ostensibly raceless Western ideals, but rather a central shaping constituent of those ideals. (14)
Yes, hell yes. It is so frustrating to find race over and over again treated as something separate and incidental rather than a fundamental structuring reality. It is brilliant to find clarity in how this racial hierarchy sets the parameters for discussion as a whole. Thus disputes between Locke and Kant are still disputes that sit comfortably within and remain limited by this framework.
So it is fairly astonishing — until you think about it I suppose — that this framework is consistently ignored by whites. ‘[O]ne has an agreement to misinterpret the world’ writes Charles Mills.
Thus, in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made. … Whiteness…is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities. (18)
I think under Trump we are reaping the rewards of this epistemology of ignorance with a vengeance. Sad.
In classic contractarian thought or Rawls-inspired contracts or even Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract, the focus is on the ideal. Mills argues that the Racial Contract, on the other hand, is an historical actuality. It is a global reality created over five hundred years of European domination and active consolidation of white supremacy. What always shocks me — it doesn’t matter how many times I read it — is the openness with which those in power once discussed their moral, political and economic rights as white European Christians over the rest of the world. The openness with which a battery of arguments was used to prove nonwhites less than human.
This must always be remembered. These things happened at the same time, these philosophies and these conquests, often by the same people. So we also must remember:
European humanism usually meant that only Europeans were human. (27)
You have to remember that George Washington was known to the Senecas as “Town Destroyer” (28).
You have to remember that white settler states — US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa — were all founded on extermination, displacement and the forcing of indigenous populations onto reservations. Pierre van den Berghe coined the term Herrenvolk democracies to characterise them and the many traits that they share. This was cited, and supported, in The Global Colour Line as well… still, I’ve been meaning to read den Berghe for ages.
Yet none of this has been seen as an appropriate subject for political philosophy?
The fact that this racial structure, clearly political in character, and the struggle against it, equally so, have not for the most part been deemed appropriate subject matter for mainstream Anglo-American political philosophy and the fact that the very concepts hegemonic in the discipline are refractory to an understanding of these realities, reveal at best, a disturbing provincialism and an ahistoricity profoundly at odds with the radically foundational questioning on which philosophy prides itself and, at worst, a complicity with the terms of the Racial Contract itself. (31)
The classic social contract is primarily social/political, but also economic — Locke is all about private property and its protection, right? But it is the economic aspect that is most ‘salient’ in the Racial Contract as it is
calculatedly aimed at economic exploitation…. There are other benefits accruing from the Racial Contract– far greater political influence, cultural hegemony, the psychic payoff that comes from knowing one is a member of the Herrenvolk (what W.E.B. Du Bois once called “the wages of whiteness”)–but the bottom line is material advantage. (32-33)
At the same time whites across the spectrum have steadfastly ignored or played down the role of colonial conquest and African slavery in Europe’s development. Mills describes many who have challenged this view like Walter Rodney, writing about the ways in which Europe’s development is built upon the underdevelopment of its colonies. But the mainstream academy has relegated them to the margins, just as it has relegated an understanding of ‘the centrality of racial exploitation to US economy and the size of its payoff…’ Mills continued:
this very centrality, these very dimensions render the topic taboo, virtually undiscussed in the debates on justice of most white political theory. (39)
Where are we now? A stag described by Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Manning Marable and others. One where ‘colourblind’ is the watchword because it is claimed that we are all now equal since the death of a Jim Crow supported by law:
Whereas before it was denied that nonwhites were equal persons, it is now pretended that nonwhite are equal abstract persons who can be fully included in the polity merely by extending the scope of the moral operator, without any fundamental change in the arrangements that have resulted from the previous system of explicit de jure racial privilege. (75)
But all of this is only possible in a world where white supremacy reigns.
But in a racially structure polity, the only people who can find it psychologically possible to deny the centrality of race are those who are racially privileged, for whom race is invisible precisely because the world is structured around them, whiteness as the ground against which the figures of other races–those who, unlike us, are raced–appear. (76)
To finish this post, I end with a starting look at what might be required to move forward — I like that this is incorporated, and it resonated strongly with some of Gilroy’s work.
A genuine transcendence of its terms would require, as a preliminary, the acknowledgment of its past and present existence and the social, political, economic, psychological, and moral implications it has had both for its contractors and its victims. (77)
[Mills, Charles W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.]
The title reflected the general historical parallels between the “first Reconstruction” following the U.S. Civil War, occurring from 1865 to 1877, and the dramatic political struggles represented by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Both of these turbulent phases of U.S. history were periods of intense political conflicts and ideological debates about the future of African American people within U.S. democracy. (vii)
Manning Marable pulls no punches either.
More than any other modern nation in the world, with the possible exception of South Africa, the United States developed from the beginning a unique socio-economic structure and a political apparatus which was simultaneously racist, stubbornly capitalist, and committed to a limited form of bourgeois democracy: a racist/capitalist state. (4)
This is a brilliant and detailed book, so I’ve just pulled out some of my favourite facts and quotes from it, but highlighted Marable’s divisions of history, and his characterisations of each period, giving what he argues is the flow of recent movement.
I still haven’t read W.E.B. Du Bois on this, I am still promising to make this failing good. But to turn to Marable’s work, there is some awesomeness in here as background to more modern struggle. Like the fact that in 1865, in Washington D.C., Sojourner Truth led a boycott of public transportation facilities to protest segregated street cars.
In 1865, the first bus boycott.
Again it highlights how many rights were erased over a period of only a few years — that we have not been steadily moving forward as I feel we are taught, but catching up to a period just after the Civil War. In Alabama, 181,000 blacks were eligible to vote in 1900, two years later there were only 3,000 registered black voters.
How in the hell does this sit with notions of democracy? Understand this, and much becomes clear I think. Marable writes:
The Jim Crow system of racial exploitation was, like slavery, both a caste/ racial order for regimenting cultural and political relations, and an economic structure which facilitated the superexploitation of blacks’ labor power. Unlike slavery, Jim Crow was much more clearly capitalistic, since white owners of factories did not have to purchase entire black families in order to obtain the service of a single wage-earner. However, in both caste/ racial relations, both systems were dependent on the omnipresence of violence or coercion. (10)
Quotes W. E. B. Du Bois — such an incredible quote, and the best possible explanation of why standpoint theory is important:
This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or he wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilization in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man, or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West.
— from Black Reconstruction, p 703 (p 11)
I know I am more interesting in continuation, in how movements grow and build off of the work of the past, with the support of elders in the struggle. I look at the lives of people like Ella Baker, organisations like the Highlander and SCEF and how important they were over decades. Look at all of the many people and institutions in place making the Montgomery Boycott possible, for example, and that it really sprang out of the active work of women’s groups and Jo Ann Robinson, as well as some leadership from E.D. Nixon as claimed here. This means I am a little wary of claims that there was little popular protest for segregation between the end of WWII and the Montgomery County bus boycott in December 1955 — and for this reason also little studied. I think maybe now we realise we didn’t know how much protest there was because it was little studied, but by that I don’t mean to lessen the impact of the repression brought during this period or deny there was a huge increase in the mid-50s:
The impact of the Cold War, the anti-communist purges and near-totalitarian social environment, had a devastating impact upon the cause of blacks’ civil rights and civil liberties. (17)
I didn’t know or had forgotten that in 1944, Blacks in South Carolina formed the Progressive Democratic Party to challenge white democrats, had organized chapters in 39 of state’s 46 counties. Carried some momentum after the war. Marable argues it had slowed down by early 1950s, still an important early movement.
I also can’t say how nice it is to see the damage of anti-communism spelled out:
In the face of growing racist opposition, the NAACP counseled continued reliance upon the Truman administration, legal challenges to segregation laws, and a general policy which spurned direct action. The failure and tragedy of this conservative approach to social change was in its parochial vision and tacit acceptance of the Cold War politics. By refusing to work with Marxists, the NAACP lost the most principled anti-racist organizers and activists… The anti-communist impulse even affect CORE, to its detriment. (25)
Marable describes how CORE had ‘all but ceased to exist’ by 1954, after the red scare. (26) It would continue to be haunted by a fear of communism. Marable looks as well to the impact of the government’s prosecution of Du Bois. Despite his acquittal all his works were removed from libraries and universities. He had his passport withheld by the State department. During it all,
The NAACP Legal Defense lawyers made no overtures to provide assistance. The central office contacted NAACP local chapters with strongly worded advice about “not touching” Du Bois’s case. (27)
It makes me so frustrated to read, even now distanced as I am. I am glad this was said:
By serving as the “left wing of McCarthyism,” Randolph, White and other Negro leaders retarded the black movement for a decade or more. (31)
There must be more analysis of this turn to the right…but then having read Walter White’s autobiography it is perhaps not altogether surprising.
There is the class composition of white reaction:
In 1955-59, White Citizens’ Councils were initiated in almost every southern city, comprised chiefly of middle-to-upper income whites in business, white-collar professionals and the clergy, who vigorously opposed desegregation. (42)
And then one of the more useful characterisations of black nationalism over time that I have read:
Since the 1850s, a significant portion of the African American people have tended to support the ideals of black nationalism, defined here in part, as a rejection of racial integration; a desire to develop all-black socio-economic institutions; an affinity for the cultural and political heritage of black Africa; a commitment to create all-black political structures to fight against white racism; a deep reluctance to participate in coalitions which involved a white majority; the advocacy of armed self-defense of the black community; and in religion and culture, an ethos and spirituality which consciously rejected the imposition of white western dogmas. At certain historical moments, such as in the 1850s and the 1920s, a majority of the black working class, rural farmers and the poor were in their political and social behavior extremely nationalistic. (53)
Brilliant. It encompasses Marcus Garvey, of course, later dominated by the the Nation of Islam. A brief note on the genius of Malcolm (Marable’s book on Malcolm X also high on to-read list)
Malcolm X made the simple distinction between desegregation and integration which Farmer, Rudolph, Wilkins, Marshall and other Negro leaders could never grasp. “It is not a case of [dark mankind] wanting integration or separation, it is a case of wanting freedom, justice, and equality. It is not integration that Negroes in America want, it is human dignity. (55 — Malcolm X and James Farmer, ‘separation or Integration: A Debate’ Dialogue Magazine 2 (May 1962))
Anyway, on to Marable’s descriptions of the Phases of the Second Reconstruction:
We Shall Overcome 1960-1965
The Second Reconstruction actually began in earnest on the afternoon of 1 February 1960. (59)
He dates this from the first sit in, by students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Izell Blair.
Black Power 1965-1970
This witnessed a key theoretical and strategic movement, partially embodied in King’s move in 1966 away from reform, towards an understanding:
that America’s political economy of capitalism had to be transformed, that the Civil Rights Movement’s old goals of voter education, registration, and desegregated public facilities were only a beginning step… (101)
For Manning 4 pivotal factors explained the rapid collapse of the Jim Crow system during the 1950s and 1960s:
(1) the outbreak of the Cold War…which resulted in international pressures for American governments to abandon support for their undemocratic and irrational policies of racial domination;
(2) the independence from European colonial rule of Caribbean and African states…
(3) the great migration of five million African American sharecroppers and working people from the South into the urban ghettoes of the Midwest and Northeast between 1940 and 1970, a migration that transformed the political character of urban society and deeply influenced the patterns of American popular cuture, sports, education and social relations; and
(4) most important, the growth of popular democratic resistance movements, led by King and thousands of local activists, that used the nonviolent, direct-action protest techniques of Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha. (210)
Black Rebellion: Zenith and Decline 1970-1976
An interesting return to class here, I like that the intersectionlity is highlighted here:
Most historians fail to observe that the massive efforts waged for desegregation and, to a lesser extent, for Black Power, were basically workers’ movement. Black workers had comprised the great majority of those who had sacrificed during the local battles to uprrot Jim Crow. (112)
Again there is noted the move of Bayard Rustin and A Phillip Randolph to the right of labor over the 1960s, but interesting in the ways that this opened up space for new leadership in the movement, challenge and change.
There is the 1972 Gary Convention — the largest black political convention in U.S. history. Marable sees this as the zenith. About 3000 delegates attended from all strands of the movement, as well a total of around 12,000 people over the whole of its course. He writes:
The collective vision of the convention represented a desire to seize electoral control of America’s major cities, to move the black masses from the politics of desegregation to the politics of real empowerment, ultimately to create their own independent black political party.
What almost no nationalists and only a very few BEOs recognized before maneuvering for political power were the many structural crises which confronted America’s major cities. (121)
Some of the flowering of this could be found in the documents collected in Eyes on the Prize, some of the sterling work and words of new black mayors. But Marable notes that no one then knew the real condition of the finances of the cities, what the fate of these efforts would eventually be.
This was part of the decline, and then there was white reaction. A campaign around ‘law-and-order’ by Nixon and friends, because
‘It was clear that many white American shad to be prepared ideologically to accept the massive violation of civil liberties, the denial of human rights, and the illegal executions which were necessary to blunt the rhetoric and reality of black militancy.(124)
They more than succeeded.
From Protest to Politics: The Retreat of the Second Reconstruction 1976-1982
This is just sad and depressing. I stopped wondering why we are nostalgic for the 60s and 70s a while ago, after reading Angela Davis’s autobiography where she is so sure the revolution will come any day, after reading book after book full of people who believed a new world was possible and was on its way. I don’t think anyone in my generation could really believe that, though perhaps today’s youth are managing.
There is a rather fascinating aside about Reverend Jones and the People’s Temple, which flirted with politics, with AIM, which registered and turned out voters in California. Then it relocated to a 3,000-acre estate in Guyana called ‘Jonestown’ with 1000 American citizens living there. Investigate by a Congressman, who was then murdered with his party then the whole camp committed suicide. This story has so many parallels with Ti West’s The Sacrament, which we watched not so long ago. But that is a digression.
There’s a decent discussion of problems with sexism, the prevalent view that racism was specially damaging to black manhood, which meant women needed to support their men rather than fight their own struggles. So this period did see a great flowering of black feminism, a true gift to struggle. Here there is discussion of bell hooks and Angela Davis, lights in a dark time.
There’s the growth of the Klan through the 1970s and into the 80s.
Then there’s the defection of Rev Abernathy and Hosea Williams to Reagan’s camp. That shit is crazy, I was too young to know just how crazy. This constant bleeding to the right.
Reaction: Black Society and Politics Diring Reagen Conservatism 1982-1990
This was a grim time, but there is some helping thinking through the larger picture behind what was happening here. The solidifying of class boundaries:
But opportunity in a capitalist society is always a function of social class position, which means ownership of capital, material resources, education and access to power. For the unemployed, the poor and those without marketable skills or resources, for those whose lives were circumscribed by illiteracy, disease and desperation, “race” continued to be a central factor in their marginal existence. (184)
The intersection of race and class. There is an interesting look at the difference between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity, Marable argues, ‘was derived from the cultural synthesis of the population’s African heritage and its experiences in American society…’, while on the other hand:
Race is a totally different dynamic, rooted in the structures of exploitation, power and privilege. “Race” is an artificial social construction, which was deliberately imposed on various subordinated groups of people at the outset of the expansion of European capitalism into the western hemisphere five centuries ago. the “racial” consciousness and discourse of the West was forged above the bowels of slave ships… (185)
So what does this mean then, for African Americans and others in the U.S.:
Race, therefore, is not an abstraction but an unequal relationship between social aggregates, which is also historically specific. the subordinated racial group finds itself divorced from the levers of power and authority within the socio-economic order. ..The racial group’s political status is marginal or peripheral, as full participation and legislative representation are blocked. Finally, racial categories are constantly reinforced in the behaviors and social expectations of all groups by the manipulation of social stereotypes and use of the legal system to carry out methods of coercion. (186)
And what does it mean for whites?
White power, privileges and prerogatives within the capitalist economy and the political and social system do exist. Whiteness is fundamentally an index of the continued patterns of exploitation of subordinated racial groups which create economic surpluses for privileged groups. to be “white” in racial terms essentially means that one’s life chances improve dramatically over those of nonwhites, in terms of access to credit, capital, quality housing, health care, political influence, ad equitable treatment in the criminal justice system. (186)
There is also this curious feeling that I have heard so often expressed in so many different ways — the most recent and the most brilliantly memorable being Paul Beatty’s The Sellout:
No black American could ever be “nostalgic” for Jim Crow. Nevertheless, the absence of a personal background of struggle casts a troubled shadow over the current generation of black Americans who are poorly equipped to grapple with the present complexities of racial and class domination. (188)
Marable argues the existence of two central crises in the 1980s and early 1990s — the external:
federal government’s retreat from equality and consolidation of mass conservatism.
All under Reagan. The internal?
the ordeal of the African American family, neighborhood, cultural and social institutions, caught in the vise of violence, crime, social destruction and drugs. (188)
The 1980s, he argues, saw a fundamental political shift:
for black Americans, the central political characteristic of the 1980s was the conservative reaction to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the apparent capitulation of both political parties to a more conservative and repressive social order. (194)
With a brief aside about Larouche (I had almost forgotten about him!), the reality of this shift must be faced:
In the 1980s, more than anything else, Reaganism represented a break with the half-century-old notion among both Democrats and Republicans that the state had a political and ethical obligation to reduce the vast chasm separating the society’s wealthiest classes from the poor and the unemployed. (203)
Into the Wilderness: the Twilight of the Second Reconstruction 1990-2001
God this period is grim, I know, because I’ve lived through it. I read through this section, got through it, continued on.
The New Racial Domain: The Politics of Racial Inequality
Things are continuing pretty badly. Marable flags up one of the key characteristics of our modern era:
The cardinal characteristic of the New Racial Domain of post-Second Reconstruction America was the hegemony of “color-blindness” and race-neutrality. (250)
This is one he talks much more about elsewhere. And with this we reach the end of the book, though not the struggle.
[Marable, Manning (2007) Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006, 3rd edition. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.]
We went to see Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter today at Bristol’s RWA — I love Angela Carter, one of the true greats. Her amazing words snake round you, drag you in so it is impossible to emerge from the spectacular quality of the worlds she builds and the strangeness of the images that she gives you. No one is whole, no one normal. The struggle of the surreal, the damaged, the hybrid, the brilliant linger long after the novel is done.
She has always filled me with wonder, love and extreme envy in equal measure. Ah, to write like that.
It is hard to imagine what could do justice to her, but this exhibition came close, it was such a pleasure to be in such an evocative space, to encounter these wondrous things. was curated by Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts of UWE, and the artist and writer Fiona Robinson of the RWA. Friday evening we’d been to an event at the Arnolfini — a talk about Ken Adam by Christopher Frayling and then a showing of Dr Strangelove, which Adam had worked as set designer on. We then had a lovely night of it over dinner and drinks with Marie and a few others. It felt like serendipity to come to this today.
From the website:
A major exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of Angela Carter twenty five years after her death.
In bringing together art and literature, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter explores the enormous impact of author and journalist Angela Carter – one of the most distinctive literary voices of the last 100 years.
Echoing Carter’s recurring themes of feminism, mysticism, sexuality and fantasy, the exhibition includes historically significant works by Marc Chagall, William Holman Hunt, Paula Rego, Dame Laura Knight, Leonora Carrington and John Bellany, on loan from major national collections.
One large room is full of art influenced by Angela Carter, some of it recently commissioned. I confess this was my favourite room because rarely have I loved so much so deeply. It makes me long for disposable income as few things do.
A few of my favourite pieces. Like Sarah Woodfine‘s ‘Untitled‘ (Forest).
She had three pieces in the exhibit — I always feel a bit constrained in taking pictures, so I am missing the other two, but loved them equally. I would buy anything she did.
I loved Di Oliver‘s ‘The Fairy Tale‘ as well:
Also included were two of her exquisite linocuts. I would buy any of them too. Then there was this extraordinary mobile, called ‘The Forest Assassins‘ by Tessa Farmer. The label reads that it is created of banksia seed pods, crab claws, crab eyes, wormshells, birds’ legs, fish jaws, insects, plant roots, crocodile skulls, bird skulls, snake ribs,snake teetch, mouse bones, taxidermy birds, Portugues man ‘o’ war plyps, hedgehog and porcupine spines, whelk egg cases. There is more going on here. Everything is manned by tiny winged figures and ants.
Off there to the right there on the wall is ‘The Follower‘ by Simon Garden. Amazing. One of our other favourite paintings in the room, and on his website, well, I love all of his work.
Then there was these illustrations by Juli Haas, with windows to open on other worlds…
There was Lisa Wright’s ‘After the Masked Visitor‘, which is the featured image here, and Eileen Cooper’s ‘Tail of the Tiger’:
Then there was the amazing Ana Maria Pacheco, particularly ‘The Banquet‘, a massive sculptural installation, which appears incredibly and terrifyingly surprising as you open a dark curtain:
I am leaving people off this list not because they were not brilliant, but because my mind is full to bursting. Because after leaving the great room of art inspired by Angela Carter, you continue on to a second room of art that inspired Angela Carter. Like Marc Chagall, ‘The Blue Circus‘:
The “Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” (1846) by Joseph Noel Paton, that only became interesting when you look quite closely:
Some Leona Carrington — my favourite ‘The Amateur of Velocipedes‘
Then there was still more and even more — another room of illustrations and covers for Angela Carter’s own books. From the presentation as written on the wall:
Angela Carter was a writer who proclaimed to ‘think first in images, and then grope for the words’, embracing the complex relationship between words and images — art and literature.
I loved Eva Tatcheva‘s cover artwork for Sea Cat and Dragon King.
And then of course Corinna Sargood‘s work, both the oils and the linocuts…
This very cool collection of posters produced in a contest:
It has been a long time since I enjoyed an exhibition this much — and it was particularly exciting to have so many artists still working that I now know to watch out for. And so many of them women. This fails to do it justice and to name all the necessary names, but there is a book available to you.
Walking up the great hill we stopped in the remainder store, and I just happened to buy Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife‘. The first poem in it is Little Red Cap, and I read it waiting for our post-gallery cake and coffee and what another piece of serendipity, because it brought poetry to the prose and to the art we had just been drinking it. I felt lucky to read it for the first time like this.
At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
Into playing fields, the factory, allotments
Kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men
The silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan
Till you came at last to the edge of the woods
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf
He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
In his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw
Red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
He had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me
Sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink
My first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods
Away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
Lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake
My stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
Snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes
But got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night
Breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
What little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?1
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
And went in search of a living bird – white dove –
Which flew, straight, from my hands to his open mouth
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said
Licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
Of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head
Warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood
But then I was young – and it took ten years
In the woods to tell that a mushroom
Stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
Are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
Howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out
Season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe
To a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
To see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
As he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
The glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone
It ain’t pretty.
Too bad it’s way too late for Luke Cage to stay away.
Iron Fist wasn’t really enough to write about, but Netflix is making a series about the dude inspiring some controversy. Undoubtedly to cross over with Luke Cage (yay) and Jessica Jones (yay). I enjoyed a recent article by Noah Berlatsky with the subheading ‘iron flop’ and the title ‘“Iron Fist” proves Marvel is obsessed with rich white men—and it’s ruining their superheroes’.
Which is funny, partly because it’s true given there’s Iron Bat and Bat Fist and Dr Strangebatiron and more. Only one of them is an arms dealer at least. Iron Fist could have been, should have been Asian. He gets his powers from a fabled village in China’s K’un Lun mountains — where his DAD is from. Marvel argued they needed an ‘outsider’, which makes no sense as justification for casting a white guy. My favourite part apart from the title was actually the quote from Shaun Lau, an Asian-American activist and co-creator of the “No, Totally!” podcast (which I will have to listen to except I’m not much of a podcast girl and haven’t even finished my beloved Welcome to Nightvale since I quite farming):
“I don’t think people understand the extent to which ‘outsider’ describes the life of an Asian-American,” Lau said. “When I walk down the street, I’m not perceived as an American because of the way I look. But I did a family trip to China, Japan, and Hong Kong, when I was 19, and I didn’t fit in at all in any of those places. I don’t speak the language, just looking at me the people who live there knew that I was American.”
Unlike Rand, Asian Americans are perceived as aliens both in the US and abroad. “Asian-Americans really are this level of outsider that would work really, really well with the character of Danny Rand,” Lau said.
Ultimately, Lau argued that casting a white actor to play Danny was a “missed opportunity” for creating a new narrative.
It really was. It should have been done. Even in these early comics you feel how awkward and weird it is that Iron Fist is white, especially as all his family drama and their connections to China unfold. It never makes much sense. 1974 feels pretty late for that kind of shit, but there it is. Anyway, that shit keeps happening.
But reading the comics you realise this is something that often ‘ruined’ their superheroes. It is hardly surprising Marvel felt they had to cast Iron Fist as white — not that anyone in their production department necessarily read these early comics. But they are entirely white male wish fulfillment (and what else are many of these comics and films really about?) They are written as if *you*, the imagined (white, male) reader were iron Fist:
I know I’m still learning my way around comics, but I haven’t come across this before. I mean, look at that last panel, you, the imagined (white, male) reader *are* Iron Fist with crazy muscles about to kick some ass. It just keeps going.
I liked that it was ‘kung-fu’ heavy, but it so reminded me of the multiple films in which dudes from the US become martial arts saviours — they still get made even when the only explanation for white prowess is down to fate and watching kung-fu films. I never understood what was up with any of them, but clearly they belong in a long tradition of white guys longing to appropriate the awesomeness of another culture and pretend it really belonged to them all along. At least some of them train a few years for it, but still. I long for the film where Michelle Yeoh reduces each and every one of them into a quivering pile of humiliated jelly.
In fact the only good thing about Iron Fist is how awesome the ladies in it are, like Colleen Wing and Misty Knight.
Anyway, the various writers on the team keep up this writing style of making *you* , the imagined (white, male) reader the hero for a long time. You, the ‘master’ of chi. At least, occasionally, there is a crazy cool monster.
Anyway, that’s me done ranting about Iron Fist, we definitely don’t need more billionaire heroes. Though I confess I did enjoy his visit to London. Look! It’s the Post Office Tower!
Beginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod was quite good as a starting place for understanding major currents of thought, major debates, and the principal theorists as well as literary figures. For a long time I’ve always felt a bit of disdain for these kinds of introductory books, I’m not sure where that comes from. I think from auto-didactically reading some of the ‘classics’ and finding them so very different from how they were taught me in my early years in school. But as a place to begin, not end, in developing my understanding this was very helpful indeed, and will be worth going back to once I’m a little further along. In terms of learning on one’s own, I actually quite appreciated its format of exposition interspersed with sections highlighting key questions for consideration, and the way it walked the reader through a couple of key theoretical and fictional texts to better illustrate the methodologies used.
I also really appreciate clarity. Perhaps a little too much, but it’s nice to start with the basics. Like this explanation of the debate over using postcolonial versus post-colonial:
the hyphenated term… seems better suited to denote a historical period or epoch, like those suggested by phrases such as ‘after colonialism’ (5)
Without a hyphen?
referring to forms of representation, reading practices, attitudes and values…. postcolonialism does not refer to something which tangibly is, but rather it denotes something which one does: it can describe a way of thinking, a mode of perception, a line of inquiry, and aesthetic practice, a method of investigation. (6)
Ah. Useful, right? This also explained the trajectory, especially within academia, from ‘Commonwealth’ to ‘Postcolonial’ studies — something I’d never quite known about. Another distinction was in the difference between colonialism and imperialism — McLeod cites Peter Childs and Patrick Williams as they argue that imperialism:
is an ideological project which upholds the legitimacy of the economic and military control of one nation by another. They define imperialism as “the extension and expansion of trade and commerce under the protection of political, legal, and military controls.* Colonialism, however, is only one form of practice, one modality of control which results from the ideology of imperialism, and it specifically concerns the settlement of people in a new location. (9)
Again, that is such a nice encapsulation of something I’ve been thinking about a while. Other things are very new indeed, such as the difference between new ‘postcolonial’ critics from earlier literary studies:
…their insistence that historical, geographical and cultural specifics are vital to both the writing and reading of a text, and cannot be so easily bracketed as secondary colouring or background. (18)
Said, orientalism and literary studies
There is the key role that ‘representations’ and ‘modes of perception’ play — these aren’t terms thrown around a great deal across a large portion of the social sciences. In theorising colonial discourses, McLeod draws out the ways that Fanon and Said, for all their differences:
explore the ways that representations and modes of perception are used as fundamental weapons of colonial power to keep colonised peoples subservient to colonial rule. (19)
What together they brought to postcolonial studies was the idea that:
Overturning colonialism, then, is not just about handing land back to its dispossessed people. relinquishing power to those who were once ruled by Empire. It is also a process of overturning the dominant ways of seeing the world, and representing reality in ways which do not replicate colonialist values.(25)
This is slightly different from what I myself pulled from Said or Fanon, coming from a different tradition, so it’s interesting to read more of how Said’s Orientalism has been developed further in literary studies, with three main strands of textual analysis prominent:
re-reading canonical English literature in order to examine if past representations perpetuated or questioned the latent assumption of colonial discourses.. (26)
examining ‘the representations of colonized subjects across a variety of colonial texts’ drawing on Derrida, Foucault, Lacan — Spivak and Bhaba (27)
A look at how ‘literatures were primarily concerned with writing back to the centre, actively engage din a process of questioning and travestying colonial discourses in their work.’ (28)
This included the forming of new ‘englishes’, which I quite love, and am very familiar with having grown up along the border. I find them quite subversive, but think the debate around language is so important — to write in the coloniser’s language, to write in your own, to write the creative hybrids that tend to flourish…
I like the focus on change, on struggle (and the self-reflective debate about the efficacy of postcolonial theory in doing either):
‘postcolonialism’ recognises both historical continuity and change. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the material realities and discursive modes of representation established through colonialism are still very much with us today, even if the political map of the world has altered through decolonisation. But on the other hand, it prizes the promise, the possibility and the continuing necessity of change… (39)
Returning to Fanon, it shows the ways that others have built on his insight that, for the person who is colonised:
Ideology assigns him a role and an identity which he is meant to internalise as proper and true, and he is made subject to its iniquitous and disempowering effects, both psychologically and socially.
McLeod argues that Foucault expands this understanding — and I like this explanation of Foucault’s understanding of power (though I don’t think he cites Fanon, I don’t know if he ever read him):
Although the example of Fanon soberly highlights the pain of being represented pejoratively by other people, Foucault argues that power also worked through gratification. Power is not simply punitive; if it was, it could not function so successfully, gain so much day-to-day support nor ultimately maintain its authority. … Indeed, we might consider that colonial discourses have been successful because they are so productive: they enable some colonisers to feel important, superior, noble and benign, as well as gaining the complicity of the colonised by enabling some people to derive a sense of self-worth and material benefit through their participation in the business of Empire. (45)
More useful summaries of the activities outside my own field — what colonial discourse analysis does:
‘first…refuses the humanist assumption that literary texts exist above and beyond their historical contexts. (46)
‘second…is caught up in the sordid history of colonial exploitation and dispossession…’
third, the attention to the machinery of colonial discourses in the past can act as a means of resourcing resistance to the continuation of colonial representations and realities…. (46)
Texts such as Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre have been as much a part of this analysis as those by writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Chinua Achebe. Another key distinction that is nice to just read clearly stated:
‘Orientalism’ and colonial discourse do not amount to the same thing. They are not interchangeable terms. (47)
Just as I found this a very useful summary of Said’s work in headings:
Orientalism constructs binary oppositions
Orientalism is a Western fantasy
Orientalism is institutional
Orientalism is literary and creative
Orientalism is legitimating and self-perpetuating
There is a distinction between ‘latent’ and ‘manifest’ Orientalism
Of course McLeod also summarises the critiques of Said: that Orientalism is ahistorical, that it ignores resistance by the colonised, that it ignores resistance in the West, that it ignores the significance of gender.
But what a foundation to build from. It does feel very contained however. I liked thinking about how Bhaba looks at why the two aspects of orientalism never quite work as they are pulling in two different directions, in his own words:
colonial discourse produces the colonised as a social reality which is at once “other” and yet entirely knowable and visible.’ (63)
So of course there is room here to maneuver.
Bhaba argues that within colonialist representations the colonised subject is always in motion, sliding ambivalently between the polarities of similarity and difference, rationality and fantasy. He or she will simply not stand still. hence the prevalence for stereotypes in colonialist discourses: stereotypes are an attempt to arrest this motion and fix the colonised once and for all. (64-65)
All fail to achieve to fixity, but it is interesting to think of stereotypes in this way.
I haven’t read enough Bhaba, I will fix that. The above insights I find useful and hope to work more with, others I find interesting and am still thinking about, such as his descriptions of the threat of ‘mimicry’:
Hearing their language coming through the mouths of the colonised, the colonisers are faced with the worrying threat of resemblance between coloniser and colonised. This threatens to collapse the Orientalist structure of knowledge… (66)
What I do love, though, is his focus on struggle. For example, Bhaba critiques Said in not seeing
how colonial discourses generate the possibilities of their own critique. (67)
Nationalism and nationalist discourses
There is another chapter on nationalism and nationalist representation, ie negritude and how important these came to be for struggles for independence. This is followed by a chapter of the discussion and critiques that this inspired. Impossible to summarise it, I shall just focus on bits and pieces that jumped out at me, like Gilroy’s lovely definition of race from After Empire:
“race” refers primarily to an impersonal, discursive arrangement, the brutal result of the raciological ordering of the world, not its cause. (132)
The there is Balibar writing about the way that
nationalism always has a reciprocal relation with racism (although the nature of that relation can take many different forms): where one is found, the other is never far away. Therefore, in using nationalist, it is claimed that decolonising peoples are in danger of perpetuating a concept which tends t support divisive processes of racialisation. (133-134)
Again returning to Bhaba’s work, where
nationalist discourses are ultimately illiberal and must always be challenged. (142)
With a quote from Robert Young, McLeod also notes that it is not simply race at play in these discourses:
nationalism is frequently a gendered discourse; it traffics in representations of men and women which serve to reinforce patriarchal inequalities between them. (136)
I wish intersectionality was woven into this discussion, that people like Patricia Hill Collins or bell hooks were quoted and part fo these theoretical discussions. But there is a chapter on feminism, that opens up with a definition from June Hannam that I hadn’t seen before and that I think I like:
a set of ideas that recognize in an explicit way that women are subordinate to men and seek to address imbalances of power between the sexes. Central to feminism is the view that women’s condition is socially constructed, and therefore open to change. At its heart is the belief that women’s voices should be heard — that they should represent themselves, put forward their own view of the words and achieve autonomy in their lives. (Feminism, 2006, 3-4, quoted p 198)
This is where we really start to come to grips with Spivak. McLeod discusses some of the debates and difficulties around naming, the problems that surround the use of ‘first-world’ and ‘third-world’ and yet a need to have some way to mark identities in recognition of power differentials etc. To get around this to some extent — acknowledging its flaws but hoping to salvage what is useful, McLeod writes…
So, although such phrases will be used in this chapter, they remain provisional categories of convenience rather than factual denotations of fixed and stable groups. (200)
I like that way of managing it. Some of the starting points for Spivak…
As poststructuralism would have it, human consciousness is constructed discursively. Our subjectivity and consciousness are constituted by the shifting discourses of power which endlessly ‘speak through’ us, situating us here and there in particular positions and relations. In these terms we are not the authors of ourselves. We do not simply construct our own identities but have them written for us; the subject cannot be wholly ‘sovereign’ over the construction of selfhood. Instead, the subject is ‘de-centred’ in that its consciousness is always being constructed from positions outside itself. (218)
Spivak argues that this is as true for colonial or working class subjects, but Foucault and Deleuze both wrongly often fall into speaking of them as essentialised and centred subjects. I found McLeod’s interpretation of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, which I tried to read too long ago and found very difficult, so can’t judge if this is fair but regardless it is quite interesting:
Rather than making the subaltern as female seem to speak, intellectuals must bring to crisis the representation systems which rendered her mute in the first place, challenging the very forms of knowledge that are complicit in her silencing. (221)
I also like Spivak’s idea of ‘strategic essentialism’, which he explains:
involves us in actively choosing to use a concept which we know is flawed, often as a way of challenging the very system which has fashioned that concept in the first place, (222).
I like this mix of theoretical rigor and bowing to practicality, I’ve always meant to try reading Spivak again. I like how much of the postcolonial debate is about how we move forward without erasing the past, about finding the points of hope without turning away from past points of despair.
Moving forward: borders, hybridisation, collective difference
I like how often these involve ideas of borders, though possibly just because I am from one…
In Bhaba’s thinking, the disruption of received totalising narratives of individual and group identity made possible at the ‘border’ can be described as an ‘uncanny’ moment, where all those forgotten in he construction of, say, national groups return to disturb and haunt such holistic ways of thinking. This uncanny disruption brings with it trauma and anxiety. It serves as a reminder that exclusive, exclusionary systems of meaning are forever haunted by those who are written out and erased. (254)
This is trying to tackle at one of the key questions of our times, I think. How to we come together made stronger by our differences to find justice? McLeod writes:
The problem posed in ‘New Ethnicities’ by Stuart Hall has remained: how are new communities forged which do not homogenise people or ignore the differences between them; communities based on crossings, interactions, partial identifications? Can there be ‘solidarity thorough difference’? (264)
Which is part of why I love Stuart Hall. I love Paul Gilroy’s idea of conviviality as well, though still find it slippery:
Gilroy’s answer lies in the ways in which different cultural practices circulate in the black Atlantic between groups in different locations, creating contingent transnational forms of community. ‘Solidarity through difference’ can be built by plotting the ways in which diaspora peoples in any one location draw upon the resources and ideas of other peoples in different times and places in order to contest the continuing agency of colonialist, nationalist or racist discourses at various sites(267).
This is the hope for the future, this, and as the conclusion emphasises, the habit of ongoing dialogue and reflexivity within the discipline.
[McLeod, John (2010) Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press]
*An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory, Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997, p 227
I enjoyed The Great Black Way, and LA really was amazing in the 1940s. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the awesomeness of the Harlem Renaissance was any less, so my only quibbles are with the taste of implied rivalry. One of the opening sentences of the book that sets the scene:
Walled off by segregation and custom, black L.A. built an infinitely rich world. Once upon a time, black L.A. was a stand-alone city within a city, and the more I understood that, the more artificial it seems to spear ate music from the rest of people’s lives. Once upon a time, everything was connected: the civil rights leader Clayton Russell was good friends with the R&B artists. He appears fictionalized in one of the early L.A. books of black novelist Chester Himes. On Central Avenue the jazz musicians were civil rights champions; the actors were tied to the gangsters; the gangsters court the crusading newspaper editor, who was allied with the Communist Party; the renegade communist was a member of the gay subculture… (x)
I loved how this connected a lot of the dots for me, because these artists, writers and activists are all people I love, but hadn’t really understood in their full context of place, friendships, connections. The interviews are pretty amazing, and beautifully full of a whole lot of knowledge and pride. I loved too that they understood the privilege they were bestowing on the author — he notes that a number of the people he interviewed gave him a caution in referencing Carl Van Vechten, white patron of the Harlem Renaissance who would end up writing a book called Nigger Heaven. That’s some betrayal of trust. Smith seems to have taken the point.
Did I say there are some really good quotes in here?
“Anything the power structure wanted to know about blacks in Los Angeles,” said Gilbert Lindsay, “they would say ‘Call L.G.’ Now, this is a janitor. And he was the power for the whole Negro community of Los Angeles! . . . L.G. Robinson spoke for the Negroes.” (4)
another on the role of Central Avenue:
“Central was like a river,” recalled musician Clifford Solomon. “A mighty river like the Amazon or the Nile, or in this case the Congo. And all the streets were tributaries that branched off from this great river.” (4)
There are some great passages really evoking the feel of Central Avenue, an imagined tour heading south past all of the many sights to be seen.
Herb Jeffries bankrolling the Bronze Recording Studios, and the Flash Electronic Laboratories — where ‘engineers strive to perfect their ‘color organ,’ an instrument that can take sound from a radio and translate it into visual energy. Sound is seen; the invisible becomes indigo in your living room. (13)
Before it runs into the white wall…
Though Negroes have moved south to the neighborhood around Vernon and Central, all motion stops here. Mister Jones heard the Klan claimed Slauson and everything below; Lady Creswell heard about the kids put in the county hospital after the police caught them playing on the swings south of the line. Everybody’s got a tale of what happens to those detained in this white man’s land, and enough of it is true that the street has acquired a supernatural power. You and I will acquire a seat on the streetcar. (14)
Later on there’s a note about how the song ‘Open the Door, Richard’ became a catchphrase for ending segregation.
You have to jump that to continue on down south to other great centre of culture, though of a very different kind:
Head down to Watts, from jazz to blues, world of T-Bone Walker who can ‘lift a chair, put it in his mouth, and balance it on end as he plays a frenetic shuffle.’ (15)
Chapter 1 is written about John Kinloch, nephew of Charlotta Bass who is such an inspiration, and such a central figure in the black community here as the owner and editor of The California Eagle. I recognised Kinloch’s name from many of the articles, knew he had gone to fight in WWII and died there. He called Charlotta ‘Madame’, she was his mother’s sister. His mother lived back in Harlem — I didn’t know that. I think this gets Charlotta Bass a little wrong — one central factual error is that her husband Joe Bass was not a founder of the Eagle, rather she inherited it from its founder and hired Joe on. They were partners in life and activism, but he was never more than editor. Still, it’s cool to hear a little more of her from Kinloch’s letters, and the have more life breathed into Kinloch as well. A few other facts about people I’ve written about — Leon Washington was Loren Miller’s cousin.
There are lots of little snippets, fascinating facts. There are paragraphs like this one:
The Harlem Renaissance was cracking up on Central Avenue, its one time elitists dropping by to cash a Hollywood check. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman had all been on its periphery between the early 1930s and the early 1940s as they performed lucrative, if fruitless writing tasks for the picture business. (29)
Some of my favourite writers, some of this made me a little defensive of them I confess, but there you are.
Maybe the best thing to come out of reading this book — along with a new unfulfilled and unrequited desire so rare in this modern age — is finding out about Duke Ellington’s Jump For Joy musical revue. Langston Hughes wrote a sketch for it. It featured Big Joe Turner and Dorothy Dandridge. It proudly proclaimed Black civil rights through songs like “I’ve got a Passport from Georgia (and I’m going to the U.S.A.)”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is a Drive-In Now.” It played at the Mayan — where I have danced the night away or watched Lucha — and received death threats from white supremacists. Never filmed, most of these songs have not been recorded. A fucking loss to humanity.
A few more stories, like the one from Howard McGhee of the Charlie Barnet Band, who told the board he refused the draft, refused to fight, refused to go to jail…they sent him to the psychiatrist:
I said, “Well, man, why should I fight? I ain’t mad at nobody over there.” … I said, “Shit, I’ll shoot any son of a bitch that’s white that comes up in front of me.” And they said, “No, we can’t use you.” (38)
Another story about how back in 1919 there was a celebratory banquet at Patriotic Hall for black Angelenos returning from the war, with a mass assembly and parade and military band. I think I remember reading about that, but don’t remember it being mentioned that film of it was used in a film titled Injustice. I’m trying to find it, it sounds awesome and I do believe Joe Bass of the California Eagle is the J. B. Bass who is named as an actor in it. Imagine seeing him walking down the street…
There are more stories about the People’s Independent Church of Christ — I know that church down on 18th and Paloma. Hattie McDaniels celebrated her Oscar there, Jackie Robinson got married there, Adam Clayton Powell Jr preached there…as did Clayton Russell. how did I never know any of that?
There is a rather fascinating comment on noir, which the more I think about it the more it makes sense and is perhaps best exemplified by Chester Himes:
In white noir the hero blinks for a moment, gives in to a single weak impulse, and his life is over. Order shatters around his ankles and we are supposed to realize how much darkness lurks beneath the surface of things when good intentions make way for bad. The moral universe of black noir is different; it’s about realizing good intentions don’t matter any more than bad ones in a world run by white folks. All intentions are equal and equally pointless. All choices in the end amount to one, have the same value — a value determined by people who think you are less than human. (114)
He talks about Bronzeville a little, the short term flowering of Black life, music, culture, bars in Little Tokyo after everyone of Japanese heritage was taken away to the camps. It is one of those more complicated moments of LA history, because while most of the African American said little at the time, there was by the end of the war a recognition of the injustice of it, and some coalition made. But histories of this time and place are made even more complex by things like this that I had never heard of:
By the Fall of 1945, within weeks of the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Nagasaki, the always-looking-for-an-angle club owners of Bronzeville were on the case. Pianist Eddie Heywood was promptly billed as “atomic action manifest” for his stint at Shepp’s Playhouse. The band of Sammy Franklin had abruptly changed it s name to the Atomics, there was a spot called the Atomic Cafe, and you could get your laundry done at the Atomic Cleaners. At the Samba Club, patrons could hear a singer named Francis “The Atomic Bomb” Gray and drink something called an atomic cocktail. (155)
All I could think was damn. That is fucked up.
A little more on geography, and the earliest community in LA:
At the onset of the twentieth century, Azusa Street was an unpaved byway, basically an alley, which dead-ended into the Los Angeles River. It was also said to be the first all-black street in L.A. (160)
William J. Seymour builds his Pentecostal church — the Azusa Street Revival — on the site of first AME church. After the AME church had moved, the land had been used as a tombstone shop then stables. All of it was built on this land formerly owned by Biddy Mason, once a slave, later a large landowner. These roots run deep.
I’ll end on a song, and a fascinating but not very good one. Still, it’s a symbol of how much changed during the 40s, as well as some of the ways people fought to change it back.
“Shipyard Woman” by Jim Wynn
They said the war is over
And peace is here to stay
You shipyard-working women
Sure did have your way
But it’s all over babe
Now you girls have got to pay (212)