Impossible to fathom was that all this death had been incidental to the acquisition of profit and to the rise of capitalism. Today we might describe it as collateral damage. The unavoidable losses created in pursuit of the greater objective. Death wasn’t a goal of its own but just a by-product of commerce, which has had the lasting effect of making negligible all the millions of lives lost. Incidental death occurs when life has no normative value, when no humans are involved, when the population is, in effect, seen as already dead. Unlike the concentration camp, the gulag, and the killing field, which had as their intended end the extermination of a population, the Atlantic trade created millions of corpses, but as a corollary to the making of commodities. To my eyes this lack of intention didn’t diminish the crime of slavery but from the vantage of judges, juries, and insurers exonerated the culpable agents. In effect, it made it easier for a trader to countenance yet another dead black body or for a captain to dump a shipload of captives into the sea in order to collect the insurance, since it wasn’t possible to kill cargo or to murder a thing already denied life. Death was simply a part of the workings of the trade.
— Saidiya Hartman
The crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. . . It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
— James Baldwin
What can be made of innocence?
In our world, it is an entirely white concept. It is the appeal to white intentions – those hallowed storehouses of impunity. It is the accident that requires black death.
We cannot blame George Zimmerman, for he is blameless. His actions are simply accidents of his intentions. Good intentions. For he is a good person. A white person.*
George Zimmerman is innocent and Trayvon Martin is dead. This is what innocence does. Reduces black life to an affect of white intentions.
George Zimmerman is innocent and Trayvon Martin is dead… and criminal. This is what innocence does. Reduces black life to an affect of white intentions and an encroachment of white sovereignty that must be met with death meted out by the hand of the law.
But George Zimmerman didn’t have to ‘take the law into his own hands‘. The law was already in his hands to begin with. He is not a vigilante, a rogue cop who is poorly trained, a neighborhood watchman gone wild. He is the law. The law that says if you’re white you’re right and if you’re black you best get back … or get shot.
This is why black resistance, in this white world of innocence and law, is only recognizable as violence. Because it is, in part, concerned with confronting innocent intentioned whites with the facts – the materiality – of black death. A confrontation which requires an acute perception of the democracy that demands black death and, then, an abandoning of the law which has no capacity for recognizing that black death is foundational to the maintenance of its codes of innocence and intention. Even what has passed for ‘non-violent’ resistance is violent in this white world of innocence and law, because it violates white supremacy. It endangers white sovereignty. Thus, the distinction between a violent black resistance and a non-violent black resistance is an illusion of white innocents who live in a world they invented through an intentional accident and would like to keep it that way. To them, any black resistance is violent because it seeks to abolish the accident – to establish good intentions as the crime. But this would be the end of innocence and the end of “the workings of the trade” whose artisanally crafted capital could never account for these accidental deaths.
This is why black existence is so threatening to innocence. Simply being alive is enough to confront white sensibility and sovereignty with the limit of that sovereignty and the lie of innocence. Blackness is the outer condition – the outside threat that transgresses the limit which is the law of white innocence – that creates the interior landscape where white intentions and innocence take place. Because white intentions and innocence must be placed. White sovereignty must be enacted in space and time. On the slave ship, or the plantation, or the grassy commons of a gated community.
This place-taking of white innocence and and intentions requires black displacement. A destabilizing blow – a hovering over an open mouthed ocean ready to swallow you alive or dead. An ocean that makes you a black body. A body that is cargo and chattel – shipped around as a speaking object that takes up space, is used and discarded. A body trying to remake space – make space livable. Trying to make a homestead in the wilderness. A homestead that is razed by the fire and bullets of guns and laws that prevent place-making because black communities, black affection and care, black bodies touching one another in love, are a threat to white sovereignty and supremacy.
Black death is mundane because black life is life. Because skittles and sweet tea are not embellishments, but the ordinary that is the threat. Whiteness cannot imagine black life happening outside of its jurisdiction. This is why white supremacy keeps us so close under its watchful eye. Because
There is a thin intimacy
that holds us together.
We have always been laid bare before them,
They have seen our
bodies, felt beneath out clothes,
and don’t care.
We have seen their desires,
and know they will sacrifice us
to have more of the same.
The lie is that
they didn’t know
and wouldn’t have done it
if they knew. If they were
to black people.
If they had black friends.
If they loved a black person,
in their life.
It is not intention, it is ignorance, we say.
They can be changed, goes the lie.
Still, accidents happen.
and we’ve been living inside
this one for 500 years.
*please don’t leave comments about how Zimmerman is not white. I don’t have time for that conversation.
I am weeping. How sad to confront again and again America’s commitment to racism and white supremacy! Cornelius Holmes, a freed slave from South Carolina once said, “Although the slave question is settled, the race question will be with us always until Jesus come the second time.” We wait in hope!
I have to confess I have a hard time grokking the very poetic metaphysics people sometimes use to describe racism. To me it is a lot simpler — it’s just xenophobia combined with privilege and blindness to that privilege. “This person is less than me, I know this because it’s been made obvious to me my whole life, duh.”
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