25 February. Blackness

This week we discussed Moten’s idea of the uncommons and Warren’s arguments on ontological terror. The key learning objective was to establish the centrality of blackness in reading religious texts, to shift the marginality of blackness when reading religious texts.  With the readings, we engaged means and ways of belief, relationality, the need to destroy the category of Being, anihilation, faith, science, metaphysics, fugitivity, imagery, pessimism, terror, hope, spirit, emancipation, creativity, containerization, and worldviews, among others, in order to understand the importance of both that centrality, and the urgency of that shift.

By Sunday evening, please post your brief comment on this week’s readings and discussion.

6 replies on “25 February. Blackness”

What is blackness? Is it brokenness? What does it mean to be living with debt? What is the meaning of living with brokenness? Is blackness marked and tainted flesh? Still, “consider the following statement: ‘There’s nothing wrong with blackness,’” Moten tells us (Moten, 2013).

In regards to black aesthetic, for Moten, there is an eclectic sampling of black performativity. The dismissal of the essence of blackness in its performativity equates the dismissal of blackness in general. As part of his argument, Moten further describes that blackness in its performativity equals NOT, lost, and loss. However, this is not a conclusion. Rather, Moten underscores that at this very moment, we cannot go on to easy solutions, when we have not taken the time to deconstruct the heart of the issue.

Since debt is productive, is living with debt also productive? I wonder, what does it mean to live with black debt, queer debt, criminal debt. I am still searching for the answer. Yet, I know that it is the forgiveness of debt that I should question, challenge, and deconstruct. According to Moten, forgiving debt does not exist. Debt forgiven is only equivalent to restored credit, restorative justice, and thus, it is always unjust. Moten argues that in radical tradition, the break takes place from the inside. Restorative justice, therefore, does not help; we must get rid of the whole system.

Perhaps Calvin Warren thinks similarly in its desire to destroy the being. For Warren, the being, the thing that is “inside,” is an anti-black weapon that needs to be destroyed and dismantled. The being is not all that there is to blackness. As we learn to center blackness when reading religious text, Warren’s “Ontological Terror” is an invitation to think outside of the being to something subordinate from being. It is Spirit. Poetically and beautifully stated, when centering blackness, Warren stresses that “Ontological Terror” is an invitation to make way for the work of Spirit.

My question: How does Spirit work across borders, across oceans, with and beyond the slave ships? Does highlighting the work of Spirit beyond the Crossing make room for a different understanding of blackness?

Although one of the stated goals of this week’s discussion was to establish the centrality of blackness and highlight the necessity of shifting the marginality of blackness in the reading of religious texts, my reading of Moten’s idea of the Undercommons presents a significant challenge to this task. Moten’s Undercommons is purposefully difficult to define: a “non-place,” an intentionally dislocated common that exists in shared prophetic organization outside, under, and beyond the acclaimed critical space of the University. The undercommons (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not in Moten’s text) is “where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong” (26). Moten and Harney are careful to refute the idea that the academy can produce truly critical, radical voices (30); its professionalization, its mode of training, make “black study” a thing inherently estranged from “blackness.” As I see it then, Moten’s deconstructive move in developing the concept of an “undercommons” confronts the impossibility of shifting the marginality of blackness in the reading of religious texts. The marginality, the “outside, under, and beyond” of blackness, presents a constant prophetic rebuke to the center. In every attempt to draw “blackness” into the center of my reading of religious texts, I will have to acknowledge the impossibility of that task. My own professionalization, the competencies that I am developing as a progressing doctoral student at Emory, takes me further and further away from engaging blackness—defaulting instead toward “black study.”

In reading Moten, I am forced to engage the despair that comes of acknowledging my advancing place in the scholarly world, my complicity, and its attendant blindness to blackness. At the same time, I must admit that this is a productive and generative despair: the kind of prophetic despair and mourning that I see in the biblical texts that I study with intensity. It is a despair that recognizes the dis-repair, sin, and brokenness of self and world with respect to blackness, yet at the same time, preaches a prophetic hope that is already-and-not-yet, of the-world-but-not-in-it, “outside, under, and beyond.” In these biblical texts that are charged with despair and hope, the message is often that we cannot save ourselves—our tools are inadequate to the task of salvation. However, the work of mourning, of recalling the inadequacy and futility of our efforts to draw blackness into the center, is not without value: it counters the totalizing spell of negligence. What I take from this week’s discussion on blackness is the value of retaining this tension between an abstract, intellectual, conceptual, prophetic non-space of blackness (the undercommons) that constantly challenges and resists the center from the margins. My own willingness to be attentive to blackness is not enough: I need also to be aware of my growing position in the academy, the structural impossibility of drawing blackness into the center from where I stand, and to approach such work with appropriate humility.

My response returns to an important question Sam asked in class–once before Dr. Warren’s arrival, and then again to Dr. Warren–regarding the historicity of his claims about the way anti-Blackness is foundational to the Human and Being. Warren responded by making a historical observation regarding how the Ancient Greeks–from whom “we” in “the West” (and to whatever degree it has been globalized) inherit our philosophy and politics–effectively plagiarized African thought, setting a precedent of parasitism and effacement that would run through the History of the West (including its colonial expansion). In contradistinction, I hypothesized that the answer to Sam’s question could be understood in terms of a paradoxical temporality of retroactivity: wherein which concepts/doctrines/traditions that preceded the historical advent of anti-Blackness (i.e., the foreclosure of Blackness from Being/Humanity) become imbricated in its metaphysical (infra)structure not only during their historical contemporaneity with anti-Blackness (whatever particular historical parameters one may invoke), but also preceding the advent of anti-Black metaphysics (i.e., retroactively) in that this advent constitutes such a historical rupture it forecloses any simple relationship to what has preceded it; in other words, so my hypothesis goes, we cannot see “before” this advent because it constitutes our historical event horizon (and, with it, or very means of perception/interpretation). Though Warren’s response to Sam’s question differed from mine, I do not think they are necessarily mutually exclusive, as what I have in mind concerns the singularity of racial-chattel-slavery in which Blackness was invented as a fundamental disqualification of Humanity in order to legitimate perpetual enslavement–not just for economic and political purposes, but for ontological and theological ones.

To conclude with a gesture toward a concrete instantiation of how anti-Blackness demands a radical reconsideration of how we read religious texts (comparatively or otherwise): insofar as Blackness, following Warren, is constituted as a void of Relationality precisely in order to constitute Relationality amongst Humanity (and its stratified expansion, which includes colonized non-Blacks and animals), then how may we (begin to) (comparatively) read religious texts 1) for their anti-Black logics of Relationality and, at the same time, 2) for their potential for Non-Relational modes of sociality? However, in positing/asking this, understanding Blackness as a void of Relationality–which would depart from Glissant’s understanding, at least on this point–is not to infinitely resign to the notion that Blackness “lacks” Relationality; rather, it is to: 1) condemn Relationality as paradigmatic of an anti-Black libidinal economy of desire, and 2) begin to re-read Blackness’s Non-Relational-Void as potentially offering a more radical and just mode of sociality. And perhaps “religious texts” (broadly conceived) offer resources for contemplating this potentiality.

In Ontological Terror, Warren makes radical claims about the pervasiveness of antiblackness to a number of modern ideologies. He writes in his introduction that “black being incarnates metaphysical nothingness” (5) and that it is in fact the “objectification, domination, and extermination of blacks that keep the metaphysical world intact” (6). In Warren’s reading, the nothingness that black people represent, the lack of being they possess, is foundational to metaphysics. As he states later in the introduction, “it is the Negro that sustains metaphysics and enables the forgetting of Being (i.e., metaphysics can forget Being because it uses the Negro to project nothing’s terror and forget Being)” (7). The domination of black people comes to represent domination of a nothingness whose indomitability terrifies us. My chapter in particular claimed that science and mathematics are also systems of thought that depend on antiblackness. Warren writes in this chapter that “ Blackness enables a scientific encounter with the horrors of an entity that is nothing and something at the same time” (111) and later that “Scientific thinking needs blackness because blackness is the living laboratory—a laboratory that functions biologically, but is dead ontologically (118). Like metaphysics, Warren argues that science fears nothing, and in the black body finds a “nothing” it can both dominate and use for otherwise unethical experimentation.
I did not find Warren’s claim that antiblackness is foundational to things like metaphysics and science to be persuasive. As I haven’t read the whole book, I leave open the possibility that the chapters that I did not read could change my mind. But from what I read, it seems to me what while Warren repeatedly asserts antiblackness as foundational to these systems of thought, and shows instances in which metaphysicans, scientists, and others acted in deeply racist ways, he does not actually make the case that the prejudice with which these people acted is an inextricable part of their system of thought. With regard to the specific claim about the ancient history of metaphysics being a problem for this line of argument, I found Andrew’s point about the “retrospective power” of racism interesting. It is likely the case that antiblackness perverted ideologies that existed before the colonization of Africa in such a way that a simple return to them is not possible. I was less persuaded by Warren’s argument about the indebtedness of ancient Greek thinkers to Egypt and Phoenicia. To claim that Greek metaphysics has an unrecognized debt to African thinkers and to claim that antiblackness is foundational to metaphysics, as Warren does in the book, are different things.

“The important task for black thinking (philosophizing, theorizing, theologizing, poeticizing) is to imagine black existence without Being, humanism, or the human. Such thinking would lead us into an abyss. But we must face this abyss—its terror and majesty. I would suggest that this thinking leads us into the spirit, something exceeding and preceding the metaphysical world…The spirit enables one to endure the metaphysical holocaust; it is not a solution to antiblackness. The spirit will not transform an antiblack world into some egalitarian landscape—the antiblack world is irredeemable. Black nihilism must rest in the crevice between the impossibility of transforming the world and the dynamic enduring power of the spirit. In the absence of Being there is spirit” (Warren 171).

The readings for this week were difficult. I mean that intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually (if you are one to believe in such a thing). At one point I thought that this week’s unit should have been titled “Antiblackness” but the reality is glaringly obvious after reading both texts that, despite my fervent desire to believe otherwise, blackness and antiblackness are so intimately intertwined that acknowledging one without the other is utterly impossible. I was a bit hard pressed to consider how these two texts would connect to the question of theology and comparativism, however, after such a productive conversation in seminar I am drawn to two different things which I will touch on, briefly, in this reflection. First, I was to wrestle with the reality that institutionalized religion is unquestionably dependent on and thriving from antiblackness. Second, I want to sit with Warren’s articulation of the spirit as outlined in the excerpt above.

Whenever I have to consider the philosophical and metaphysical frameworks developed by people like Heidegger (or Hegel or Kant…and the list goes on and on) I find myself asking where, if anything and from anywhere, did I first begin to consider my own being. Even though I try not to bring my faith into the classroom I know that if I asked the question to my father or my mother they would tell me that my Being is confirmed by God’s love for me. As the daughter of a black baptist preacher, the ruminations of continental philosophers hold no weight as compared to the belief that God is not dead and that his love is what validates my life in this realm and the next. For full transparency, such a determined equation does sometimes feel empty underneath the existential weight of modernity and its many spectacular and quotidian violences. What has comforted me, spiritually and intellectually, is the reality that my faith is built within the depths of a paradox. While I fully acknowledge the many formidable arguments that Christianity was and is used as a form of oppression for Black folk across the globe, being raised in the Black Christian church after the Civil Rights Movement has, for me, created a space where the possibility for black freedom stems from rereading of religious texts which were once used as tools of subjection. I often told my students that one of the most radical aspects of the Black Christian tradition (this is not exclusive to just Christiantity) is that intellectually readers of the bible moved from the idea that they would be free in the afterlife and demanded their rights and citizenship in this world. I fully acknowledge that all of this — notions of freedom, citizenship, faith, religion (and the list goes on and on) — are just, from the perspective of the Black nihilist, the laughably useless tools of the Liberal humanist fantasy. The institutionalization of the Black Christian church left an open door to the malicious political incorporation of black folks into a society which hinges on antiblackness. Black religious leaders are often jump at the chance to become the mouthpiece of the Democratic establishment despite the reality that we are still falling prey to the onslaught of antiblack violence while many turn a blind eye. None of this is lost on me. This is, I believe, why Warren’s conception of the spirit, particularly the black spirit, and his privileging of such over that of the Human/Being is so interesting to me. All of my rhetorical understanding of the spirit comes from my time in church. It is a thing that I want to believe in, not merely in the realm of the spiritual, but also in political, the material, and especially within the realm of my professional career. I have so many thoughts on where such a concept could be conceived and studied? And most importantly, with what language or intellectual grammar could such a spirit be articulated? I do not know, but I am happy that, now, at least, I have the foresight to know that I should be searching.

I was sad to miss class this week, but thoroughly enjoyed reading Warren’s book. I will offer a post this week in the form of a more personal reflection.

I have not yet worked with Calvin Warren since arriving at Emory, but I did meet him in 2017 at AAR, when he gave a presentation in the Black Theology Unit. The unit was convened around Afro-pessimism, and other esteemed scholars in black political theology, Joe Winters and J. Kameron Carter, were also on the panel. That year was also my last at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I had begun the process of applying to doctoral programs thanks to the urging of James Cone, the best teacher I have ever known. Also, that year, I took my fourth class with Dr. Cone and the last class he would ever teach—Black Theology—which he taught autobiographically, moving first through the canon of his own work with the second half of the semester dedicated to engaging his critics.

We read Carter’s Race: A Theological Account and Victor Anderson’s famous critique of Cone in Beyond Ontological Blackness, a foreshadowing of Warren’s work to come. Cone directed us to turn to the index of Carter’s book—a massive text over 500 pages long. He asked us to look for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They were not there. In his trademark, high-pitched candor, Cone slammed his fist on the table and cried, “How can you write a book called a theological account of race and never mention Martin and Malcolm!?” I was totally convinced by this point; I was certain that accounts like Carter’s and Warren’s sacrificed history for theory.

Many of Cone’s more recent critics, Warren included, are importantly pushing the limits of ontological understandings of blackness. Warren deals with this in his second chapter, stating plainly that “black being is invented precisely” as the (no)thing that a “metaphysical world tries tirelessly to eradicate” (27). For Warren, “the question of black being must, then, start with the ontology of the problem. To be a problem is the being-ness of blackness” (27). While I don’t believe ontological theologies like Cone’s are necessarily take the ontology of the problem for granted while highlighting ontological resources and solutions, I see Warren’s point. Liberation theology takes freedom, activism, and a hope and belief in progress as defining categories and, as Joe Winters in his excellent book, Hope Draped in Black, claims:

“in light of the ways black people’s diverse strivings, experiences, and struggles consistently get assimilated into ascendant national narratives and because black bodies become readily available signifiers of progress, optimism, and American supremacy, it is important to reconsider the fraught relationship between black strivings and progress” (Winters, Hope Draped in Black, 7).

Part of black nothingness, as Warren defines it, includes this tendency for moments of hope, joy, and happiness, and moments of victory like those inspired by Martin and Malcolm (Winters uses the presidency of Barak Obama as another example), to be claimed by an American nationalist narrative of progress that occludes historical evil. I think Warren’s mode of afro-pessimism offers a powerful way of seeing this problem that liberation theologies like Cone’s may either overlook or overdetermine.

For years, I engaged Afro-pessimism from a defensive stance, rooted in my affinity for and training from Dr. Cone. I experienced Warren’s AAR presentation as a lambasting of Cone’s arguments, and I was emotionally on guard against this cutting edge of theological scholarship for fear they were leaving Cone behind. But, religious comparativisms have brought me intellectual relief. I do not have to forsake one to believe in another; I do not have to leave Cone behind to embrace Warren’s arguments, nor do I have to stand against Warren if I still find Cone’s theology immensely important and still relevant. For this, I am grateful.

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