Trayvon Martin nativity scene co-opts Black erasure, urges victims to be “nonviolent, loving, [and] forgiving”

A (white) artist, John Zachary, has designed a Christmas manger for Claremont United Methodist Church in Southern California inspired by Trayvon Martin’s murder entitled “A Child is Born, a Son is Given”.

I don’t quite know how I feel about this artistic statement wrapped in a nativity scene, wrapped in an alter to a (post-Megan Kelly) white Jesus figure born (not killed) in a mythical manger; but this image [to the right] about sums it up. I’m inclined to think that the Trayvon-inspired manger co-opts anti-Black violence — a violence premised on the metaphysical origin story of the Black slave, who is imagined (at an ontological level) as always already fungible or disposable, especially if he is male and can be dismissed by a white supremacist society (or jury) as criminal or potentially criminal — in an attempt to respond controversially and graphically to trigger-happy Americans who argue that the Second Amendment is sacrosanct. The church sign accompanying the nativity scene reads,

“There is no better time to reflect on gun violence than advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jesus was born into a state of total vulnerability as an innocent, unarmed child during a time of great violence much like Trayvon Martin.”

Zachary’s display in no way memorializes Trayvon’s death (though — following Saidiya Hartman’s critical insights in Scenes of Subjection [1997], from which this article inherits its title — the manger does spectacularize Trayvon’s death for white libidinal consumption); nor does it call attention to the gratuitous nature of his state-sanctioned murder; nor does it incite audiences to think critically about the fact young Black folk who look like Trayvon are being killed with impunity in numbers that we can’t even begin to calculate, not inconsequently because these Black deaths don’t register as (human) losses.

The Christmas manger doubles Trayvon’s erasure by rewriting the story of how he died — at the hands of a racist, ego-maniacal, wife-beating, would-be cop who was later exonerated for his (non-)crime through recourse to the same law that sent a Black woman to prison for 20 years (for firing warning shots at her physically abusive husband, no less) — as one about the triumph of forgiveness and nonviolence over insurmountable, gratuitous vulnerability [see image below]; which — according to the artist — is what Trayvon and Jesus Christ have in common.

Who, exactly, are we being asked to forgive in this message? Zimmerman (who is conspicuously missing from the nativity scene), or the legal system that responded to Trayvon’s death by returning the murder weapon to Zimmerman as a souvenir? Or are we being asked to forgive Trayvon for being Black in the first place and neglecting to anticipate the anxiety his Blackness would provoke? And who is the “we” in this message? Who is being asked to do the forgiving: a disaffected Black public, or Southern California Christians who mourn/clamor for Jesus (presumably by offering Trayvon up in this display as a sacrificial lamb)?

Zachary’s nativity scene and its accompanying text function to police potential (Black) violence, reflecting the initial panic that emerged after the Zimmerman verdict: a concern that the streets will run red with Zimmerman’s blood (and the blood of all white folks) if Black rage is not contained. The church sign above warns against “redemptive violence”, going on to note that the “a nonviolent, loving, forgiving victim is perhaps one of the most transformative and world changing assumptions of the Christian faith.”

Transformative for whom? A complacent and forgiving victim of white supremacist violence might be ideal for the Christian church and its bedfellows in power, but we must remember that “nonviolence”, “love”, and “forgiveness” — and other token sentiments that whitewash the horrific nature of Black erasure — offer little in the way of dismantling the white supremacist power structure that was set up (from the beginning) to kill Trayvon and those who look like him. We must ask why attempts are being made to quell Afro-insurgent demands before they start, perhaps by first admitting to ourselves (instead of pushing aside for fear of committing some kind of thought crime) that the world must end before we can “live” in it.

This analysis is written by the blog’s author, M. Shadee Malaklou, who can be reached at shadee.malaklou@gmail.com with inquiries.

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Justine Sacco’s tweet not wrong, because we would never let white people die at those rates

Director of Corporate Communications at IAC — the parent company of Match.com, About.com, OkCupid, College Humor, BlackPeopleMeet.com, and The Daily Beast — Justine Sacco tweeted the following racist “joke” Friday morning:

Sacco has since been fired from her PR post at IAD, no doubt because Twitter and Facebook (and the blogosphere) are aflame with reactions to Sacco’s racially-charged comment about the likelihood of Black bodies contracting AIDS. The tweet went viral while Sacco was in-flight; in fact, it incited so much outrage that her critics were actually tracking the flight — anticipating when Sacco would again step foot on solid ground, where she could be held accountable for her comment — making the most popular trending hashtag Friday on Twitter “#HasJustineLandedYet”.

Sacco’s Twitter comment is dripped in first-world white privilege, and this privilege is telling: sure white people are just as genetically “capable” of contracting the HIV virus that causes AIDS; but if white bodies were actually dying from AIDS at the same rates as Black African bodies, would the (first) world let it happen? Would we stand back and abandon the good white folk of Europe or America to die? Would we linger so long to find a cure that might save these white bodies from a Black death?

When Hitler attempted to exterminate a seemingly “inferior” white race of Jewish people, the world took notice and declared a genocide and a war against Nazi Germany. The European powers-that-be even “gave” the surviving Jewish people a “homeland” to call their own; and while the impulse to export all Jewish bodies to a different place and time is itself a racially-motivated exclusion from Europe’s (white) body politic, the deportation of the Jewish people to Palestine qualifies as an attempt to save these people from being killed with impunity in anti-Semitic Europe (even if that meant that they had to displace the Palestinians to do it). Stated another way, the Jewish people were never denied what Fanon calls “ontological resistance”; they still qualify as “people”, and as people with inalienable human rights, they are not (were never) supposed to die.

But the same is not true for bodies epidermally and irredeemably marked as Black. As Frank Wilderson notes by way of contrast, Black bodies went into the slave ships as African and came out as Black, which is to say, as fungible non-human “things”; and not just fungible or expendable in the new world, but everywhere. To borrow from Audre Lorde in “Apartheid USA” (1986), the world order in which we live is committed to (and inaugurated itself on) “making sure Black people die” because Black bodies are “dirty and Black and obnoxious and Black and arrogant and Black and poor and Black and Black and Black and Black” (68). Every day, 6,000 Africans die from AIDS and another 11,000 are infected with the HIV virus; which is why, though Sacco’s tweet is problematic for a whole host of reasons, it also offers a kernel of truth that we would be remiss to overlook: white bodies would never be abandoned by the (white) world to die in these numbers. 

When the white body is under attack (for example, by an immune-compromising virus), we interpret this as an attack on the body politic, and we respond forcefully to protect its/our right to exist. But when the Black body is under attack, we sit back and watch: we enjoy ourselves. We take a picnic (the etymology of which means “pick a n****r”). We spectacularize the strange fruit that hangs from the lynching tree, and perhaps even take a piece of its flesh home as a keepsake. We don’t let Black death ruin our day, let alone cause a national or international panic. At best, Black death might illicit a GOP politician to respond with, “That’s just the way God works”, or prompt European and American policy makers to send humanitarian aid workers to Africa to play white man’s (or woman’s) burden for a few weeks (or years); but — let’s be clear — this “work” is geared towards the benefit of the activist-humanitarians who are asked to take it up, not the Black bodies these activists are supposed to be “saving”. 

Sacco’s tweet gives me pause for another reason as well: I was reminded by her post that the mythical origin of AIDS is located in the copulation of (white) man and ape somewhere deep in the dark continent. The logical conclusion of this interpretation — one that privileges the origin story of AIDS — is seriously alarming. Indeed, it could very well be argued that AIDS “belongs” to the Black body as an effect of the fact that the disease originated in the ape. Some of you may remember a 2008 Stanford University study that exposed the fact that most white people still think about Black bodies as “ape-like”. The study is chronicled in an article for Pacific Standard Magazine as one in which

The participants were “primed” with one of three sets of images: 50 photographs of black male faces, 50 photos of white male faces or an abstract line drawing. As is standard practice on such tests, the images were flashed onto their computer screens too rapidly for them to consciously register.

The students then watched short films of animals, which were obscured in such a way that it was difficult at first to make out exactly what species they were seeing. Gradually, the image became clearer, so the animal could be identified.

The disturbing result: Participants who had been primed with black male faces required fewer frames to identify the animal in question as an ape. In contrast, those primed with white male faces required more frames to make the identification than those who saw the racially neutral line drawing.

The lead author of the study, Phillip Atiba Goff, an assistant professor of psychology (who identifies as Black), says he was so disturbed by the results — which demonstrate how quickly white audiences confuse Black bodies with ape bodies — that he “hid under the covers” for two days “sick and depressed,” and that when he left his apartment, he “felt like everyone looking at [him] would see a monkey.”  In its coverage of the study, Pacific Standard notes that

In follow-up tests, Goff and his colleagues tried to pinpoint the source of the association. Perhaps, they theorized, Americans associate blacks not with apes per se; perhaps the association was of blacks with Africa, and Africa with apes. But a study that attempted to establish a link between African men and the big cats that reside on that continent failed to do so. Instead, it confirmed that the association is with apes.

…Goff found that even contemporary college students who had no idea this connection had ever been made apparently had this notion in their subconscious.

These results don’t just paint an abstract picture of how Americans map epidermal Blackness onto the other-wordly, non-human features of apes; the study also traces police and state violence against Black bodies to the assumed ape-like quality of these bodies. Goff reflects that, “Among African Americans, the more ape-related images you had in your press coverage, the more likely you were to be put to death“; and, “The association between black and ape left our white respondents more open to the possibility that police violence might in fact be justified.” It’s clear that the reason we maim and mangle Black bodies with impunity is because we still don’t think about these bodies as human; or better yet, because we think about Black bodies the way one might think about an animal that must be put down if it cannot be contained (which is why I have argued elsewhere that Animal Studies shares an interest with Afro-pesimism: both aim to dismantle the discourse of humanism and to secure the living conditions of non-human bodies).

Sacco’s association between Black bodies and AIDS (and Africa) is an effect of this ontological assumption about the origin of AIDS. Her tweet exposes a hard truth: the (white) world — the world with money and resources and the ability to make a difference — is complicit in the erasure of Black Africans dying from exposure to HIV/AIDS; and further still, that this (white) world is premised on the erasure of non-human bodies. I invite those of you in the “know” (and you know who you are — white liberals, I am not talking to you) to expose the many openings and fissures Sacco’s tweet makes available in the interest of interrogating the exclusionary nature of a humanist discourse. Who gets to live and who — in a reversal of Foucault’s famous observation — is made to die is not just a question of race; it is also a question of species. Anti-Black racism is also speciesism, because despite the fact that science has gone to great lengths to prove that there exists more genetic difference within a race than genetic difference between races, the association between Blackness and animality is a subconscious association, one that is built and housed in the imaginary.

This analysis is written by the blog’s author, M. Shadee Malaklou, who can be reached at shadee.malaklou@gmail.com with inquiries.

Kanye West I.Q. petition reeks of scientific racism

I was turned on to this petition by a “friend” from high school (I use the word “friend” loosely because I grew up behind the Orange Curtain, and don’t consider my high school peers to be comrades in arms), who was soliciting signatures on her Facebook page; or perhaps circulating the petition in an attempt to mock Kanye West’s reputation as an “idiot savant”.

The request that Kanye, as a Black person, confirm his intelligence (and more specifically, his claim to human intelligence by way of an always already racially biased I.Q. test) to a white supremacist audience — in a country with slave owners as “founding fathers” — reeks of scientific racism; which (as we all well know) is supposed to be a thing of the past: a dirty secret we don’t like to talk about as post-racial Americans with a Black man in the White House (a president who, it must be said, identified in the 2010 census as “Black” despite his mixed race, claiming that he “self-identif[ies] as African American” because “that’s how [he is] treated and that’s how [he is] viewed”).

kanye-west-1-660_zpsec0b1445The wording of this petition is also curious; it claims that the people — which people? — “need by right of [Kanye’s] incessant claim to such title, proof that he is said ‘genious.'” The existence of this petition — though (at the time in which I write this) it has only 6 signatures (and yes, I recognize the political consequences of re-circulating the petition in this critique) — goes to show that Kanye really is the new slave of a world (order) hell-bent on his erasure and the erasure of those people who look like him.

I’m less concerned with the success of this petition or the number of signatures it accrues than I am with the impulse to draft a petition like this in the first place; and more generally, to make this demand of Kanye, a formidable artist in his own right. When entertainers make artistic or politically-charged statements as an extension of their brand or name — as white performers like Lady Gaga (or Brittney Spears before her, or Madonna before her) often do with impunity — they shouldn’t be forced to bear the burden of proof. Performance art is intended to provoke its audience, not to be taken literally (Madonna was obviously not a virgin); and for white artists, the message behind their art is rarely (if ever) literally interpreted. Indeed, I wonder why a petition has not circulated yet to qualify Lady Gaga’s implicit claim that she is a pop genius, and not a capitalist profiteer appropriating radical aesthetics in the interest of her own fame and fortune (an accusation that often gets thrown Kanye’s way).

I’m inclined to think that Kanye is being asked to quantify his intelligence not just because he has claimed on multiple occasions that he is a “genius”, but because he actively voices the urgent concerns of the Black community (often to the disservice of his own credibility in the mainstream). In contrast to his BFF, Jay-Z, Kanye has taken an unapologetic political position in opposition to white supremacist America. As Michael Arceneaux notes in his December 17th article for Esquire, Kanye “is the only person of his clout actively using his platform to speak on the frustrations that come with being a [B]lack creative [genius].” It’s no wonder that the weight of his intelligence is being put under a microscope: it’s because what Kanye is telling us about gratuitous racial inequality rings too true, it hits too hard, it attracts too much attention; Kanye is getting too “uppity”, and must be discredited — at a genetic level.

It must also be noted that I.Q. is not a comprehensive measure of intelligence; there are other forms of genius, not to mention intelligence, which are not quantifiable in standardized form (or quantifiable at all). The I.Q. test is also a racially-biased exam with a fraught history. In the 1920s eugenicists argued that racial disparities on I.Q. tests — which measure economic, social, and political capital (i.e. cultural knowledge and English literacy) as much as they do “intelligence” — were evidence of an evolutionary model of the human race: one in which the Black race is biologically inferior to the white, Anglo-Saxon race, and really, to all other human races (because, as Afro-pessimists have successfully argued, the Black body is intentionally excluded from the guarantees of a Humanist discourse).

The effects of the eugenics movement need no reminder. It was the eugenicists of the United States that inspired Hitler’s dream of a racially-pure Aryan nation; and though we are quick to point out the moral cruelty of Hitler’s political agenda, many of us have willfully forgotten America’s role in providing Nazi Germany with the ideology it used carry out the Holocaust. We have also forgotten that America attempted the same kind of racial cleansing when it forcefully sterilized Black women; but this second forgetting is intentional, because black lives were never worth a damn in the first place, and because in the aftermath of the civil war, Americans were under the impression that Black folk would die out (or more specifically, be starved out). We must remember, in the haunting words of Audre Lorde, that “we were never meant to survive” (The Black Unicorn: Poems, 1995).

In his May 13th article for The AtlanticBrink Lindsey reminds readers that “there is no such thing as a direct test of general mental ability. What IQ tests measure directly is the test-taker’s display of particular cognitive skills: size of vocabulary, degree of reading comprehension, facility with analogies, and so on. Any conclusions about general mental ability are inferences drawn from the test-taker’s relative mastery of those various skills.” Lindsey goes on to note,

This, then, shows the limits to IQ tests: Though the tests are good measures of skills relevant to success in American society, the scores are only a good indicator of relative intellectual ability for people who have been exposed to equivalent opportunities for developing those skills – and who actually have the motivation to try hard on the test. IQ tests are good measures of innate intelligence–if all other factors are held steady. But if IQ tests are being used to compare individuals of wildly different backgrounds, then the variable of innate intelligence is not being tested in isolation. Instead, the scores will reflect some impossible-to-sort-out combination of ability and differences in opportunities and motivations.

Lindsey’s observation about the racial disparities of I.Q. testing are not new; which is perhaps why I am responding so passionately to the resurgence of the I.Q. question in the context of a petition to discredit Kanye’s genius. There are two problems with the throwback to I.Q. testing as a way to quantify Kanye’s intelligence: creative intelligence cannot be measured by a standardized test (because creative genius, by definition, is the ability to think outside of the box); and further, Kanye’s intelligence (as a Black man who grew up with relatively fewer privileges than most Americans) cannot be assessed in an exam geared towards those people who were born and bred for “success in American society”.

To say that we no longer believe in race as a genetic concept (as the eugenicists understood it) is a ruse; because the technologies of scientific racism — like the technologies of lynching (i.e. Trayvon Martin’s gratuitous murder, or Oscar Grant’s, or Renisha McBride’s) and of Blackface minstrelsy — are changing with the times; but their logics, steeped in white supremacist ideology, remain the same.

This analysis is written by the blog’s author, M. Shadee Malaklou, who can be reached at shadee.malaklou@gmail.com with inquiries.

Reading Beyoncé’s SUPERPOWER as a love letter to BLACK RADICAL INSURGENCY: An open letter to white feminists who want to remind us that Beyoncé’s music is just “art”

In her December 13th article for The Raw Story, A Plea: Remember Beyonce’s Record Is Art, Not A Political Treatise”, freelance journalist Amanda Marcotte — who writes on feminism, national politics, and pop culture — tackles the accusation that Beyoncé’s album is “anti-feminist” (referencing reactions to lyrics like “bow down, bitches”) by reminding us that Beyoncé has produced for us a work of art, not one of politics.  Because if we look closely, her politics are flawed, or so the argument goes.  Marcotte faults Beyoncé for “reinforc[ing] the same beauty standards she decries on the records”, but ultimately concludes that Beyoncé is still a feminist because, you know, feminism is messy.  Marcotte ends the piece in (what she claims is) a “plea” that not only fails to understand Beyoncé’s feminism, but also functions to silence the Black radical politics of Beyoncé’s work:

I want to remind everyone that music is not a polemical or a campaign pamphlet. Music is art. Art can—should—be messy, contradictory, raw, and emotional. I love that Beyonce openly struggles in her music and in her image between the push-pull of both wanting to embody this kind of feminized perfection and seeing it for the trap that it is. It’s much more honest and human and humane than some kind of bland feminist treatise set to a beat. Beauty is a painful trap to ensnare women, but beauty is also pleasure and it draws you in. Denying these contradictions and presenting ourselves as people who have it all figured out all the time is tempting, but it’s not honest. And it’s certainly not art, which is supposed to reveal, not conceal. Just a small plea from me to remember that we’re talking about an art form, not a political treatise, as we tear into the lyrics, beats, and imagery that Beyoncé just turbo-launched into the public.

In one short paragraph, Marcotte manages to remind us why white feminism fails (still) to address the experiences of Black women as women; and in the same stroke, disaffects us — as a viewing public — from our identification(s) with Beyoncé as a woman of color.  As an ideology, (white) feminism demands that women identify (and rally) as women first, and as bodies of color second, or better yet, last.  Marcotte forecloses on the overdeterminacy of Blackness in an anti-Black world, and underestimates Beyoncé’s commitment to (what I am going to suggest here is) an insurgent, Black political future.

Beyoncé’s radical politics are perhaps best expressed in SUPERPOWER, the music video for a song she sings with Frank Ocean.  In it, Beyoncé directs a diverse band of women to commit righteous acts of arson and property damage.  Her co-conspirators consist of freaks, monsters and degenerates; she celebrates fearless, violent women: veiled women, Black women, as well as several women who present as gender ambiguous and body dysmorphic.  In the last two minutes of the video, these women women are joined by their male comrades and a cadre of Black musicians — Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams, Luke James, and Pharrell — and together they march to meet the riot police that awaits them.

The affect produced by this video is telling: the men and women who make up the crowd are wearing baseball caps that read “LEGAL” and (in graffiti) “CHAOS”.  Likewise, the beautifully-produced music video is cut with grainy black-and-white camera footage invoking first-hand accounts of a street riot.  And the closing scene is haunted by Beyoncé’s lyrical reassurance that, if they stand together, “they [the state] can’t break us down”; as well as an insurgent appropriation of Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes, we can!”.  Hers is a call for global insurrection on all fronts; and better yet, a violent insurrection with Black musicians at the helm.

Marcotte is wrong to dismiss the politics of Beyoncé’s music, because it is precisely the political nature of Beyoncé’s art that makes her Black feminism unintelligible to a white audience in the first place.  To quote the folks over at The Crunk Feminist Collective,

Academic feminism ain’t the only kid on the block. …Newsflash – everybody didn’t go to college. So when women of color start waxing eloquent about how our grandmothers and mothers were the first feminists we knew and many of them would “never” use the term, I wonder then why we don’t understand Beyonce’s homegrown brand of feminism – one that honors female friendships, one that recognizes and calls out sexism and domination in her industry, one that celebrates the power of women. No, it ain’t well-articulated radical social justice feminism, but if you need a Ph.D. to be a feminist, then we’ve got bigger problems, folks. AND I’ll take a feminist that knows how to treat her homegirls before one who can spit the finer points of a bell hooks to me all day erry-day.

The differences between “white” (or academic) feminism and “black” (or homegrown) feminism matter: Beyoncé’s politics entertain the dream of an insurgency that might change everyone’s lived conditions; while white feminists are (usually) only interested in agitating for issues that affect them directly.  The concerns of mainstream white feminism fail (still) to address the fact that Black women are being gratuitously killed by the state.  Or that they are being criminalized, imprisoned, and forcefully separated from their children.  Or that their children are being stopped, frisked, and interrogated like criminals and, if need be (or the wind blows in the right direction) shot and killed with impunity.  Or that Black women and their families are being starved out by the War on Poverty and the newest bout of rants in Washington about ‘freeloading’ Black welfare queens.  Or that Black lives were never worth a damn in the first place.

Beyoncé’s insurgent aesthetics map seamlessly onto the otherwise-soulful, romantic lyrics she offers, suggesting that the music video is intended as a love letter to Black radical insurgency.  This metaphor is reinforced by Beyoncé’s love interest in the video — a masked freedom fighter — who she shields from violence with her embrace, but whose face and identity are never revealed.

And I thought the world would move on
I thought the world would move on
Without us, without us, without us
But nothing I know could slow us down
Couldn’t tow us down

…And just like you I can’t be scared; just like you I hope I’m spared. But it’s tough love, I know you feel it in the air; even the babies know it’s there. Tough love. Super power. The laws of the world tell us what goes sky, and what falls; it’s a super power. Super power. The laws of the world never stopped us once, cause together we got plenty super power.

Super power
A subtle power
Super power
A tough love
Super power
Like a shark
Super power
Like a bear
A tough love

Beyoncé’s music is a political treatise, just not one that Marcotte can understand.  The music video for SUPERPOWER concludes with insurgent rebels lunging at the riot police, only to stop dead in their tracks seconds before impact.  The video abruptly ends there, before the moment of confrontation between the state and the bodies it has abandoned; leaving us to wonder what will transpire when the mass of bodies Beyoncé has collected actually meet the ruling fist of the state.  But perhaps that’s exactly the point: to prod us into thinking about the impossible possibility of a radical confrontation between the state and its people; one in which the odds are always stacked against us, but we persist anyway.  (It really is a tough love.)  The occult nature of this ending refuses to provide closure to the story of a revolutionary violence that, to borrow from Frantz Fanon, is also a cleansing and a transformative violence; one that will even out the score of anti-Black racism to guarantee Black privilege in an anti-White world.

I have a “plea” for Ms. Marcotte that might rival her own: Beyoncé is not a confused young woman struggling with body and self-image issues that she is working through in her music.  She does not need your guidance or patronage in her efforts to come into her own.  She’s already IN her own, and perhaps it’s time to entertain the idea that her arrival is what scares you, because — as Beyoncé made clear by the “secret” release of her new album — you can’t anticipate it.

This analysis is written by the blog’s author, M. Shadee Malaklou, who can be reached at shadee.malaklou@gmail.com with inquiries.