This is the 2nd in a 3 part series. Please read the first post, Refusing to Reconcile: Against Reconciliation before commenting on this piece.
Refusing Reconciliation, Part 2: Spatiality, Fugitivity, and Blackness as Wild(er)ness
The irreducibly spatial positionality of beside also seems to offer some useful resistance to the ease with which beneath and beyond turn from spatial descriptors into implicit narratives of, respectively, origin and telos. Beside is an interesting preposition also because there’s nothing very dualistic about it; a number of elements may lie alongside one another, though not an infinity of them. Beside permits a spacious agnosticism about several of the linear logics that enforce dualistic thinking: noncontradiction or the law of the excluded middle, cause versus effect, subject versus object. Its interest does not, however, depend on a fantasy of metonymically egalitarian or even pacific relations, as any child knows who’s shared a bed with siblings. Beside comprises a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling, leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting, aggressing, warping, and other relations. -Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling
Blackness is about the beside. Is about being beside each other in the wilderness.
In the first part of this series I wrote about reconciliation as a utility of white supremacy and antiblackness that does its work through the narration of supersession–through overcoming blackness to be united in a white Christ. Many seemed to read my piece as a primarily narrative piece due to my inclusion of some biographical information at the beginning. I want to be clear that the biographical information was primarily meant to serve as a way into one of the ways reconciliation operates as a logic and a desire in churches. The main point of the prior essay, then, is that the work reconciliation does is antiblack and thus, antichrist. I intend to develop more clearly here how blackness and black theology in particular is a refusal of this antiblack work of reconciliation through the notion of solidarity as a life together in the wild(er)ness of fugitivity.
Reconciliation and Blackness
Reconciliation is antiblack and thus antichrist. It is anti-black because it requires the supersession of the black in order for its unity to be found in its white Christ. By black here, I don’t mean a particular skin color or identity, a certain vocal affectation, musical aesthetic, or capacity for rhythm (though I do mean all those things, too). Instead, I mean blackness as a radical refusal of the movement of reconciliation, and thus, of whiteness. To be black and to be made black is to take seriously the work of refusal, which is an antagonism, a thorn in the side of the sovereignty of whiteness. To be made black is not to be made other than one already is, in the sense that one must supersede the black in order to become a better whiter self or world or being. Instead, to be made black is to be undone through an encounter with an other that interrupts the logic of self-making, the logic of world-making, as supersession. To become black is to remain in instability, is to remain in solidarity together in instability. To become black is to be against the movement beyond sociality for the sake of becoming logical and reasonable. To become black is to refuse being made a something–to be and become nothing. Not because nothing is an absence or a lack of life, but precisely because nothing is the abundance and multiplicity out of which life is formed.
You have to be black, with a knowledge of the history of this country, to know what America means to black persons. You also have to know what it means to be a nonperson, a nothing, a person with no past, to know what black power is all about. Survival as a person means not only food and shelter, but also belonging to a community that remembers and understands the meaning of its past. -Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
Becoming black is this paradoxical situation of belonging in a place that is a non place. Of knowing the history of a country that continually erases and effaces a black past. To be black is to know and belong in this community that knows and understands what it means to be “a nonperson, a nothing, a person with no past.”
Black Church in the Wild
Black Christ, knows and understands this belonging, this history, and the role of American empire in producing and maintaining antiblackness. We see the refusal of reconciliation in black theology’s articulation of black Christ. Black Christ does not require the movement from blackness and whiteness to a new unity in Christ. This is a white Christ who requires the movement of reconciliation. Rather, black Christ refuses this movement from blackness and whiteness to a new extension of whiteness in Christ, because he is always already black and thus, always already refusing the conversion whiteness extends. Thus, black Christ is antagonistic to the mode of reconciliation the white Christ and white Christianity and the white world puts forward as redemptive. To be white, then, is to be anti-Christ, to create the division of racialization and coloniality that separates reason from unreason, thought from unthought, social life from social death, the body from the flesh, civilization from wilderness.
Instead of the conversion and reconciliation whiteness requires, black theology recognizes it is only in the embrace of the wild(er)ness of blackness that freedom is found.
There is nothing blacks can do to escape the humiliation of white supremacy except to affirm the very attribute which oppressors find unacceptable…. To this day, there is little evidence that whites can deal with the reality of physical blackness as an appropriate form of human existence. – Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
In this affirmation of blackness that Cone notes, there are resonances of fugitivity. A stealing away to a space that is able to affirm blackness. Delores Williams conceptualizes this space as the wilderness. A place where the escape becomes a site of encounter with the blackness of Christ, that is Christ’s presence, that enables one to continue refusing the world of white supremacy that one inhabits. Wilderness is also the grounds of engagement with others who reside in blackness, and who know the wilderness is what helped them survive. It’s a sharing in the inhabitance of a space outside. But it’s an outside that is also inside the logic of whiteness, that makes space in the fissures and fault lines that run within the knowledge and the world that whiteness produces.
Blackness and black theology is thus a rejection of the world and a refusal to be reconciled with it. Blackness recognizes that world as it is given is a project of white supremacist empire.
We glorify [blackness] because they despise it; we love it because they hate it. It is the black way of saying, ‘To hell with your stinking white society and its middle-class ideas about the world. I will have no part in it.’ -Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
With this refusal Cone thus doubles the utterance of reconciliation–a doubling that undoes reconciliation as the movement between two stable points of identity, black and white. Rather than reconciliation, we have revolt and refusal.
In black theology, blacks are encouraged to revolt against the structures of white social and political power by affirming blackness, but not because blacks have a chance of “winning.” What could the concept of “winning” possibly mean? Blacks do what they do because and only because they can do no other; and black theology says simply that such action is in harmony with divine revelation. – Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
Blackness is thus, not concerned with the stakes of the game as structured by white logic and reason. Blackness refuses to believe that recognition and inclusion are the same thing as liberation. There is no winning in conceiving of new ways to expand white logic to include more bodies. Blackness, then, is always already multiplicity because it refuses the stability that produces a winner and a loser. It refuses the question of conversion and whiteness as it is given. It is contradiction and paradox without resolution. It is particularities and excess. It is thinking objects and unthought subjects. And thus, to utilize the language of blackness here is not to reproduce blackness as it is produced within the logic of whiteness–of reconciliation–as a thing to be superseded because it is not universally able to represent all things. That is, to utilize blackness here is not to produce inclusion and exclusion, but rather, it is to refuse that division because the sociality of blackness, its radical community of nonpersons, precedes the division whiteness makes to produce itself as universal. Blackness here, then, is not a thing to be moved beyond in order to get at a diverse multicultural utopia that is to come within (the white) Christ’s united body. Rather, blackness is a thing, is a space, that already is. It is an escape, a fugitivity, a freedom which is already made present to us. It is the recognition of the textures of the now through sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
It is the whiteness of reconciliation that depends upon that totality. Instead, blackness expects to be exceeded because it expects encounters to happen. (“We believe in the manifestation of the black Christ, and our encounter with him defines our value.”-more Cone) Black theology, then, is not the narration of the story in this way: Cone supersedes Barth and Tillich, Delores Williams supersedes Cone, and J. Carter or Anthony Pinn supersedes both of them, and so on and so forth. Instead, we must think of black theology as a series of encounters, not in a teleological or linear sense, but in the sense of reaching out to “touch somebody’s hand.” Not touching to agree in the sense of belief, but touching and agreeing in the sense of consenting to be together. As Mary Pattillo writes, we must think “blackness as a collective endeavor, and the black community as an implicit agreement to persevere in that journey.”(fn) In a theological sense, that perseverance of the faith is not a perseverance towards a point in time, but a perseverance towards each other that refuses reconciliation precisely because reconciliation requires that the other is lost–swallowed up in unity beyond ourselves.
But rather than being beyond ourselves, blackness conceives of togetherness and sociality as being beside ourselves and beside each other.
I’m not sure that “reconciliation” is quite the right word here. To my way of thinking, “reconciliation” means that two opposing groups are able to get along, to love each other. That necessarily involves recognition, and celebration, of their differences.
In Aotearoa New Zealand we have used the term “assimilation” to mean that the indigenous Maori were forced into becoming just like white European colonists, thereby loosing their indigenous distinctiveness.
There is a body of Catholic teaching on the right of indigenous peoples to self determination from Pope Innocent IV, Aquinas, and John Paul II which seems provide a helpful theological tradition.
Your way of thinking is exactly how reconciliation is conceived of and exactly what I am trying to work against. I don’t want to “come together” and “celebrate differences”. That separation and the illusion of celebration are produced by coloniality itself that insists on controlling the when and how of people’s being together. I have no interest in giving myself to some neoliberal multiculturalism project that ends at celebrating differences. What does that have to do with freedom? What does that have to do with liberation? Not a damn thing.
I do also want to note, though, that your comment exhibits some mansplaining instead of actual engagement with my post. You are certainly free to disagree with my use of reconciliation, but it’s pretty obnoxious that you are telling me that’s not what I actually meant to say. I know what I think and what I wanted to write, and it is here in some form. So, please, if you aren’t going to engage with the actual piece, leave your comments elsewhere.
Ouch ! But thank you for your response.
I also have no interest in giving myself to some neoliberal multiculturalism project that ends at celebrating differences. I’m much more interested in liberation and justice. But I do think differences are worth celebrating.
I see reconciliation as resulting from the struggle for liberation and justice, and hence in this world invariably partial and incomplete.
I do think that reconciliation without a commitment to structural change is a constant temptation for the Church, and one we frequently succumb to.
Cone has a chapter on Liberation and Reconciliation in his “God of the Oppressed” in which he seems to point to a valid form of reconciliation which results from liberation.
I’d be interested in what you make of Cone’s view on reconciliation.
I think I need to read more on Black Theology in order to really grasp your posts – thanks for challenging me to do so.
FWIW, the term “reconciliation” is a sacrament in the Catholic Church (aka confession), so Catholics are committed to the term, but the sacrament presupposes that the penitent has done what they can to restore justice (although I suspect that mostly does not happen in practice).
Chris, I think you haven’t fully immersed yourself in how Amaryah is using “reconciliation”.
Amaryah, this is my shorthand reading of your objection to reconciliation: “Reconciliation” sets up whiteness as normative and blackness as a deviation from it. So reconciliation either means being subsumed into whiteness, thereby accepting white supremacy as normative, or a sort of vacuous, head-patting celebration of “differences” that really represents one “difference” as the standard and one “difference” as deviant. So reconciliation means acquiescing to something that is evil. Am I reading you right? Kind of out of my depth here. I tried to conceptualize this post by thinking about what I find objectionable about males being the normative body and females being the deviant one–I definitely find this kind of “difference” objectionable. I get frustrated when people talk about reconciling sex differences when I feel that the idea of difference as conceived is the problem in the first place. Is this a relevant analogy?
So, In terms of Reconciliation as in the Sacrament, in the case of God and humanity the distinction between God and humans is not artificial and so we truly need to be reconciled to God in a way that blackness ought not be reconciled to whiteness.
Have I gotten anything at all?
Yeah, one of the problems many of us who are not academic theologians have with reading theology (and much the same applies to reading Church documents) is that what is written cannot be understood without understanding the words used, and the words used often have completely different meanings to what they mean in everyday English.
Take the terms “white” and “black”, for example which do not seem to mean skin colour, as someone not versed in Black Theology would assume, but oppressor/oppressed.
I find MLK, Malcolm X and Cone much easier to read, perhaps that’s because they are preachers and used to phrasing what they want to say in ways which are easier for non-theologians to understand ?
I think you are onto something helpful in terms of reconciliation as sacrament, our need to be reconciled to God in a way that blackness ought not be reconciled to whiteness
I looked up “reconcile” and “reconciliation” in the KJV bible and they almost always refer to reconciliation between sinful humanity and God, or in one insightful case between David and his master King Saul (1Sa 29:4).
Obviously, that kind of reconciliation when applied to oppressor/oppressed just accepts and enables unjust power relationships and is part of the problem. A big part of the problem.
In that sense, Amaryah’s use of the term “reconcile” seems very scriptural.
I am under the impression that it was the concept of race that enabled colonialism. If that’s so, why do we continue to perpetuate the concept of race by embedding it in our theology (or rather, embedding our theology in it)?
You don’t seem to actually have a question here. If you don’t think race as a concept should be interrogated through theology, why bother to comment? You offer no real engagement with the piece. Your ‘superior’ opinion posed as a question is not useful to anyone reading. If you have a real point, please bring that out because it’s rude to do this passive aggressive dismissal that seems to be at work in your current comment.
My question is whether “race” deserves the status you’ve given it, and if so why?
And I expressed my question in such a way to show that I’m doubtful as to whether the answer is “yes”. I didn’t think that was unfair or passive aggressive or irrelevant.
Thanks for clarifying. I’m still not sure I understand your question, though. Are hundreds of years of white supremacist domination and oppression and coloniality not enough to mean race is something one must deal with? It seems the desire to stop using race as anything meaningful is a desire to not recognize its working in the present. Your original question seemed to gesture to some desire for a post-racialism, which I’m quite weary of. Apologies if you were not intending that line of argument, but I’ve had several encounters where the kind of question you posed is used to dismiss my work.
Mateo, regarding your 5:19pm comment: your doubtfulness as to whether discourses of “race” (to borrow your quotes) deserve to be addressed only makes sense if you are presuming that structures of race (or more precisely, following Amaryah’s argument, anti-blackness) either (1) have no objective / preconceptual existence, or (2) have objective existence only insofar as continue to think about them. The most generous interpretation I can give to both (1) and (2) is that they are extremely obtuse claims. Rather than keep posing superficially dialogical questions, you ought to think through your claims.
That last sentence is probably a bit too polemical — but I do think it would be very difficult to defend either (1) or (2)
I’m sorry for being superficial. I will think through my claims, thank you for that reminder. In fact, I thought I was thinking them through by posting them on a blog. Of course, knowing that disagreeing people would essentially call me stupid (“obtuse”), I protected myself by posting under a pseudonym. You have confirmed the wisdom of that decision.
Anyways, my question is whether race (I’ll drop the quotes for you) deserves the determining status it is given in Amaryah’s post. I did not say that the concept of race cannot be mapped on to something real in the world; that would be ridiculous. I do assume (presume, as you say) that race as its used in this discourse means more than just noting the common genetic inheritances groups A, B, and C, and their variations from one another. My understanding is that this more loaded, modern concept of race arose as a tool of colonialism, and therefore I question the wisdom of giving it pride of place in theology so that “black” and “white” have to be placed in front of everything.
Amaryah, this is beautifully written and powerfully expressed. I’m drawn especially to your distinction between “excess” and “supercession” and how blackness operates according to the former, whiteness the latter. The former is a coming undone in encounter–“being beside ourselves–” and the latter is a constructed unity that sets ahead of time the parameters for relation. Two questions for you. 1) Am I hearing you right that by blackness you mean a kind of immediacy that is prior to various sorts of mediation? So the space of reconciliation and conversion are mediated structures of relation, whereas the space of blackness is a space of relation that holds itself prior to mediation. Hence, your emphasis on the now of blackness, its presence, that one does not have to “go anywhere” to get to blackness, and your language of the “textures of the now”–“sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.” The space of blackness is the space prior to and therefore in excess of mediation. It is about bodies touching in their immediacy, uncontrolled by structures of mediation. Do I have you right there? 2) And yet, you seem to want to talk of some sort of movement, some sort of motion toward each other, “a perseverance towards each other.” I am wondering about how to think both motion and an affirmation of what already is–the “textures of the now.” What does it mean to persevere towards each other, towards the black Christ, while simultaneously recognizing the now? Also is there a theological term that you would want to use to describe this movement, if not conversion? I like perseverance and its associations with faithfulness, as well as abiding. Any others?
Peter, thanks for reading and responding. I think you are reading me correctly wrt your first question. The motion, re: your 2nd question, that I’m trying to affirm is one of displacement or dispossession, I think. But of course that comes with all kinds of trickiness to it given black displacement or indigienous displacement is one of the primary ways by which white supremacy repeats itself. I think Judith Butler’s work on dispossession is interesting for these reasons and I would love to continue thinking through that. Perseverance came about because I grew up in black reformed circles but I liked this spin on it as not being about a kind of assurance of salvation but an assurance of being together with each other. I don’t know that it’s an idea I’m particularly drawn to developing, but you should have at it. I do really like it for how it worked here.
Great piece. So much to think about. Your remarks on wild(er)ness reminded me of the white-settler designations of wild vs. civilized, or even the term savage itself, derived from the Latin for “wood,” later connotations of animality – anything but human identification.
Just a question about wild(er)ness: in black theory/theology do you understand this as quite literal? A prioritizing of the wilderness over the domesticated, the uncultivated lands over both rural and urban development? Or, do you think of these spaces more as the spaces of antagonism to the regime anywhere? (i.e. they could equally occur in the city, country, wilderness). I ask because there seems to be a difference here with Native thought/theory that I’m trying to understand. For Native theology there is a priority of the literal wilderness/nature such that fugitivity could only be properly conceived of outside the city – in the wilderness. Or at least the power of fugitivity is located in specific places in nature (which both urban and rural development have disappeared).
Thanks for reading. I do think Native and Black positions within the structure of white supremacy are different and I think this might be one of those differences. I don’t think it has to be a literal wilderness though it has often been actual wildernesses, that enable the refusal and antagonism. But I think I would follow Frank Wilderson in the sense of the black inhabiting a kind of vertigo with regards to space and time, so that there is always a thrownness one is inhabiting due to ones blackness that can’t really be balanced by connecting to particular places of land necessarily. And by that I don’t mean to foreclose the relationships black people have had to particular places but I do mean that the situation of the black in the middle passage being one of displacement from the continent and across an ocean for years of enslavement can’t have the same kind of relationship to wilderness that native peoples have. There’s something different about what wilderness and wildness might mean to those who have been displaced through invasion and settlerism than those who have been displaced through abduction.
Thank you, Amaryah. This is really fantastic work.
Since you’re pulling significantly on Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation, I wonder how you’d play with the relatively prominent role that Cone gives to conversion in that book—-especially, conversion as becoming black with God—-where you’d want to push back, and where you’d want to develop what he’s doing there.
In that text, Cone doubles conversion. On one hand, conversion is empowerment through the revelation of divine blackness, and on the other (in a maneuver closer to the traditional meaning of “conversion”[?]) conversion is “becoming black,” an entering into forms of solidarity where white folks have their necks on the line with/for the black community and God. I’m especially interested in the way that your piece might open up a reading of Cone in which his use of the language of conversion isn’t really determined by the logic of conversion (a mediated transition from one identity to another).
It’s clear enough to me how “becoming black” would entail a resistance to reconciliation, but what does “becoming black” look like without the framework of conversion? Does Cone name the right practice here, but we need different language for it? Is there another concept that we might use instead?
For white folks, it seems possible to talk about the process of moving from naive enmeshment in whiteness to a particularized resistance to whiteness in a way that resists the logic of conversion—becoming what I already am in a way that makes space for liberation. I mean, there’s a kind of self-reflective recognition (owning, inhabiting, making explicit) of the particularity of whiteness that renders particular what all-too-often passes as universal (“look a white!”); and this is an important first step (for white folks) in starting to resist the unspoken and unwritten forms of white supremacy that structure the American “world.”
My worry, I think, is that this too easily stops at the “alongside” of the flattened “diverse multicultural utopia” which celebrates difference. It’s also several steps short of the vulnerable apprenticeship named in Cone’s “becoming black.” So… I suppose this is where I’m stuck: thinking about what “becoming black” means apart from some kind of conversion. Vulnerability to transformation through encounters is really important, but for individual white folks that can also be a way of disavowing the operations of structural whiteness; Cone’s language of conversion confronts that kind of individualist escapism head on.
This isn’t something I’m asking you to puzzle out or solve for me; I’m only meaning to think out loud about the questions that your piece raises. To the degree that my questions are a less-than-innocent distraction from the main question of your post, I apologize.
Yes, I think about this a lot with Cone’s thought, too. And I’m still not sure what I think. Part of me is like, Cone’s use of conversion seems to be in service of his work’s antagonism and refusal. That is he uses it to require something whiteness and white theology that is antithetical to itself. In a sense, then, conversion is not working, but is being put to work by Cone in service to his antagonism. That, to me, seems to also be a negation of the logic of conversion even though rhetorically they are the same. That is, conversion is put to use in order to become a negation of itself. For whiteness to convert to blackness in Cone’s sense would be an end of the world as we know it, not an overcoming or supersession.
But, I could be trying to hard to make Cone work here, which I’m also OK with accepting.
In terms of whiteness and its particularity, I think the only way whiteness can recognize itself as particular is to become black. That is, when Cone writes
“You have to be black, with a knowledge of the history of this country, to know what America means to black persons. You also have to know what it means to be a nonperson, a nothing, a person with no past, to know what black power is all about. Survival as a person means not only food and shelter, but also belonging to a community that remembers and understands the meaning of its past.”
I think you are right that he is saying you have to become a student of blackness. I think that means study in the sense that Moten and Harney put forth in the Undercommons.
Great stuff to think on. Keep naming truth!
Thank you for this. I, too, have been challenged, changed, and swept up by both Barber’s work and The Undercommons since reading them this summer. Your piece here reminded me of Stephen’s speech in Acts in which he refers to Moses as “the one who was in the church (ekklesia) in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living oracles to give to us. Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt,”
As someone still attempting to grapple with blackness, theology, and the insecurity of the wilderness, I’m very grateful for the work you’re doing.
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