He distinctly remembers, some decade or so ago – much younger, more rigid and sanctimonious then – saying, “we do not want them to think we accept their sin.” New Spirit of Penn, the University of Pennsylvania’s gospel choir – but what was really, in his mind at least, his choir in the way he tried to own and control, in the way he tried to posture and preach – was asked to sing at the annual QPenn celebration that year (2001). Though there were rumors and a bit of concrete reasoning as to why he was likely a closet case from New Jersey, he sashayed through all the suspicion declaring his utter disdain for all things unholy, the gays certainly notwithstanding. It’s not that God hated them or anything, he reasoned. It’s that God hated their sin. And so he told the board members of the choir that under no uncertain terms would they sing for such an abominable celebration. We were not responsible for changing the minds and theologies of folks by singing; we didn’t want to be complicit in their celebratory posture, so his confessional, public reasoning went.
This is not the only, or likely the most egregious, pontificating in which he participated. He would argue with people, asking ridiculous questions, making offensive declarations, of those who could affirm and accept others. “But the Bible is clear about homosexuality,” he’d say. Or, “but how can two men or two women have sex? That’s just nasty…and not natural,” he’d interject into conversations. He was a sillyass boy. He, without a doubt, hurt people. He, one can be certain, confused many.
He hoped for two things simultaneously: on the one hand, he hoped that reproducing the proper orations with the correct intensity would release him from the purported bondage of seeming contradiction and hypocrisy. But he had a more intense, fundamental, secret hope. There was, indeed, more to the story. He mostly wanted home, comfort, love. He hoped someone would see past the voluminous, harsh, brash commentary. What he really wanted, more than anything, was to test their resolve. He needed to be convinced that another way was possible. He wanted to hear the arguments folks would make, what they’d say in reply to his ridicule. He was listening, though he feigned acute unawareness.
Simply: he was afraid of the possibility for a new world, for a disruption in the modes of thought, patterns of behavior, that he’d come to hold near and dear to his heart. What and who was there – just past the nadir, after the horizon, in the mysterious beyond, as “Land Before Time” would call it – and what life could be made in such thereness? He approached but with fear and trepidation. He knew he wanted something of such thereness but there were, of course, no guarantees.
What a world ago that was.
What does it mean to desire something of another? And what is there to make of such desire when it shows up as a fundamental dismissal of the concerns of, a refusal to care for, a resistance to be in solidarity with that other? What happens when desire for something that the other has shows itself through violence and violation, through utter disregard, theft? These questions have been haunting me a lot lately as I consider the supporter response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal, as I consider the head of US empire’s call for calm and quietude from those of us that are angry. There are various desires, in other words, for the black masses that have little to do with the concern of, care for or solidarity with those masses. I think the varying responses from both supporters of Zimmerman to the president of these purportedly united skies misrecognizes and, thus, misreads blackness and black folk concurrently. Theirs are theories of blackness, of black folk, grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of what they consider blackness, and black folks, to be.
It’s something akin to what Judy Backhouse – member of the “all-white, mostly atheist Australian gospel choir,” The Café of the Gate of Salvation – said about a black voice she heard on a recording of “Precious Lord”: “it just sounds like someone on their death bed, their last gasp, you know.” And another member of this group – Tony Backhouse – heard yet another black voice and declared, “…and then there was somebody else who sounded like someone’s dying grandmother,” and it was that sound that incited his desire to learn more about black gospel music. Tony Backhouse was speaking particularly about the song “You Don’t Know What the Lord Has Done for Me,” but when I listen to it, it is not death, nor dying, that I hear. I hear life, a fundamental sociality, in their harmonics. Tony Backhouse, however, isolated the soprano voice from the others with which she sang, making of her voice an abstract valuelessness, making of her voice an individuated, lifeless, listless breath. It seems that both Judy and Tony Backhouse think that death and destruction – and the continual proximity to it – is what in their theologizing and philosophizing creates blackness. Such that any voices that emerge from such a zone must also be of the breathing dead. One would need believe that life could exist there, in that arid zone, before one could hear in such voicing that it is the mysterious beyond of blackness. They approach the black singer’s voice through a refusal to consider the capacity for vitality, a vitalism in sociality, heard when the singers perform together.
It is as if the voices of these singers – these voices from deathbeds, these sounds of dying grandmothers – were walking down streets while breathing, speaking, creating, but were victim of a fundamental inability to see, hear, feel, were victim of curious surveilling that could not envision that – yes – these voices belong, and belong in community, that – yes – these voices are of the simple fact of breath, of inhalation and exhalation, that – yes – this is life, black life, and ever so abundantly.
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something…”
“He’s just staring, looking at all the houses. Now he’s coming toward me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. Something’s wrong with him.”
“These assholes” – in other words, they – “always get away…”
Split from the possibility of belonging – no one’s son or brother or friend – Zimmerman produced a dual movement with his pronoun language. Of Trayvon, he both abstracted him to the general equivalence of valuelessness while likewise individuated Trayvon as a spook, ghostly, ghastly figure enacting violence by merely walking, by the mere fact of his breathing.
This is about the aesthetic responses to Trayvon Martin’s murder, about how Zimmerman supporters can only approach through the ongoing necessity of black death, of conflating blackness with something other than living, of thinking that – yes – blackness is a pathology. But this blackness is something, likewise, that is desired. Like singing from purported deathbeds, singing perhaps like dying grandmothers. I am thinking, here, of “Trayvoning,” where kids – primarily white – lay on the ground with a can of tea and a bag of candy to reproduce, to perform, the moment of Trayvon’s death, ready for a camera to capture the image. I stand in wonderment at the spiritual and moral crisis of a people that could “enjoy” such posturing. I stand amazed at the vacuity, at the spiritual and material desolation, of such a people. This is more than simply offensive. I believe there is a much deeper longing created both by the misrecognition of blackness as death while also seeing the enduring vitality, the ongoing emergence of thriving black folks enact in the face of these violent conditions. Trayvoning, it seems, creates the image of death and destruction in order to experience something like what they believe blackness to be. What they experience, though, is alienation from themselves, what they experience is the muteness, the violating silence, of whiteness.
In Paul Connerton’s How Societies Remember, he remarked upon how corporeal practice can be passed on from generation to generation. These stylizations of the flesh include gesture and what we generally conceive as style. Diana Taylor in The Archive and the Repetoire says that, for her, performances are “vital acts of transfer.” And Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject argues that there are certain behaviors that are generative for producing, creating, manifesting piety, that certain exterior behaviors allow for the inculcation of a pious interiority and disposition. What I take from these texts is this: our flesh has the capacity to carry memory, and our flesh are texts that can be read, analyzed, studied. The flesh gives and receives meaning that is never liquidated. So I wonder: what is Trayvoning attemping to remember, what is it recalling, what is it rehearsing about whiteness as a relation to blackness, about whiteness as the production of terror – not just for black folks but for the ones who create the conditions of violence and violation as well?
You’ve heard the claims. With a roll of the eyes and suck of the teeth, some boastful undergrad student – for example – will claim, “all societies have had slavery” or “there has always been violence, why are black people special?” or, my favorite, “my grandparents immigrated from some-such-country and became successful and the United States hated some-such-racial-group historically.” What they attempt to do is bespeak the routinization of violence for all people, that moments of historical violence are what allow for the emergence of a unique group. If we keep in mind the distinction that Hortense Spillers makes between body and flesh – that flesh is that which is ontological and stands before theology and philosophy, violence and violation create a “body” through varied abstractions, that before middle passages and the lash of the whip created for us bodies, we were and are flesh – I want to consider the means through which whiteness desires to shirk responsibility for conditions of and the capacity for terror by normalizing and naturalizing violence and violation as the moment of emergence for sociality.
Such that Trayvoning and, yes even twerking (I’m looking at you, Miley), are postures of the body utilized to literally place oneself in the situations of violence and violation in order to approach something that they’ve cognized blackness to be. Such is the classist-elitist fascination today with being ratchet, the ghetto of yesteryear. This, however, is a conceptual problem, a conundrum. Blackness is not created at the points of violent contact, at the belittlement and deathliness of terror; blackness is the unrelenting, unyielding force that rises to the occasion of such moments; it is energy that is “previous to situation.” Physics teaches us this :: that energy is neither created nor destroyed, only transferred and transformed through encounter. The blackness that we have, that we carry, is that which is constantly sought after in order to destroy it. These performances of terror that whiteness creates are attempts to capture and seize blackness, transform blackness, harness blackness into a controllable, inefficacious thing. But no. We ain’t havin it … never did and won’t start now.
Those performing Trayvoning know this: when we protest – whether it is a communal march with placards and bullhorns, or simply as the fact of our breathing – we wrestle with the concept of finitude itself. Black folks have been confronted with the fact of finitude and still thrived. It is that resistance, that insistence, that whiteness tries to discover. It is the mysterious beyond, violently questioned, put on trial, that which is after the fact of terror where they seek to go. To cross the train tracks and go to juke joints and storefront pentecostal churches and parties in basements of buildings. But it is too scary to give up the certitude of whiteness.
Ever since the non-discovery of the Indies, if not before that journey, whiteness has tried to find for itself a way to exist both in one world while eradicating the possibilities for others to flourish, to have vitality, to thrive in other worlds as the foundational principle of its existence and proliferation. For whiteness as a way of proper, gendered, sexed, raced, propertied life to fashion itself, other modes of existence had to die. This is about placement, here on earth, at sea, in the cosmos. This is, in other words, a problem of belief, of confession, of cognizing, of being. White performances of the death whiteness creates is the synergy of violent and violative theology and philosophy, it is a modality of thinking and believing in an individuated self-governing, hierarchical relation to all others – humans, plants, animals. To wander about Trayvoning is to desire to be touched by the conditions whiteness creates.
I suspect that – while laying on the ground “playfully” “pretending” that Trayvon Martin’s life meant nothing – these kids wish to discover how it is that those who have been devalued by society still, in fact and deed, value ourselves, how we love and create against expectations. Because resources are not simply dwindling for black folks, we are not the only ones experiencing the violence of empire. And, no doubt, more will soon. It is impossible to see worth in yourself while producing performances of whiteness’s violence as playful and fun. They don’t hate blackness or black folks because they have no knowledge of what it means to be black, to have blackness. They hate the image of black folks they created in their own theological-philosophical minds, that is, the image created by racism. That image, then, is a reflection. So what they produce, what they create, are mirror images, replicating the horror that is whiteness while attempting to distance themselves from whiteness through vulgar performances of the other.
Calling myself “he” in the beginning of this reflection allowed for an easy, if not also problematic, distancing from my own previous behaviors. A privileged position from which to declare the past, I could say that “he” was some other person altogether, some other entity, some other thing. And now “I” can be praised for the radical changes made while not having to contemplate the very real material desires that, at that time, prompted such homophobic self-hatred.
Barack Obama bespoke the terrors of possibly being Trayvon Martin at one time in his life because he is likewise black. But his rhetoric regarding the necessity for the nation to begin caring for black boys runs counter the policy he enacts – not just against black folks in terms of education, healthcare, and economy domestically but also internationally with drone warfare and trade agreements. For example, Obama’s administration still insists on keeping an inequitable punishment for crack possession versus cocaine possession (18:1), keeping lots of black folks incarcerated. And the education policies of Race to the Top are liquidating urban environments, giving huge profits to private corporations in the education “business.” His rhetoric – a first blush – moves opposite his administration’s policy but beneath the surface, there is revealed a close affinity with policy through pathologizing black folks as constantly near death … Obama’s language and policy are more pernicious because blamed are our primarily moral, individuated, abstracted failings.
More destructive, then, because his language yields the dispersal of purportedly tough-love, caring rhetoric in tandem with deadly policy. He splits his first- from second-person – each time he fist bumps, brushes dirt off his shoulder, sings a line from Al Green – desirous of a space for self-congratulatory grandeur. So perhaps we should stop writing self-congratulatory pieces that don’t allow for perpetual confrontation with our histories, that create of us neat stories and narrative arcs of vulgar pasts but wonderful presents. The doubling down on racist behaviors is but a thin veneer, a cheap bandage, over the festering wounding that is whiteness. Guilt and shame will not a better world make because the racism that whiteness creates – that is whiteness – to quote Toni Morrison, is a neurosis. The distance between pronouns – he and I – does not serve to protect me from my histories. The distance between the street and Tracy Martin’s home did not serve to protect Trayvon. Through the violence of whiteness, of white supremacy, they become incalculable – both near and far. What is needed is an intense confrontation with our own contradictions to find and uproot them.
:: UPDATE, July 30, 2013 ::
Please see comment below by crnkymnky where it is pointed out that Judy Backhouse was referring to her own voice on a tape, not a “black voice.” I apologize profusely incorrectly stating such and for the misreading.