Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Black or Blue: Name the Color of Absence

Fine Clothes to the Jew, Langston Hughes, 1927
Mule Bone, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, 1930
Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson, 1983
"From Nation to Family: Containment and 'African AIDS'", Cindy Patton, 1992
"Woman in Difference", Gayatri Spivak, 1992
Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler, 1993
Narrative of a Negress, Kara Walker, 2003
Abolition Democracy, Angela Davis, 2005

What, what did you get so black and blue? This is dedicated to a particular person and great number of particular people who are so particularly powerful that prison structure can't tolerate their contagion. This is dedicated to someone (to everyone) who is not only locked up/locked out, but who is being actively blocked out. This is dedicated to those (still) living. In the hole.
These texts are concerned with your absence and I am hesistating on a color for what pain to share. Black or blue the impression, depression, bruise, blackened, blues of the lie that you can be seperated from however many walls and halls and bars and locks. This is for you. 50 strands of my hair made string for you to hang on by for the months and months that they will lie to you about not being part of the world. This says that even if i don't know you, no one can cut off the line of embattled light, the tunnel of hope that keeps letting you into my heart. (like a notecard to freedom this has to shape my reading, like a sillouette of hope i'm letting myself want you.)
So these words that I've been reading are concerned with (your) absence. Langston Hughes speaks of a blues so deep that threatening suicide is the only way to make the people laugh, is the only way to protect an ever breaking overtaken heart. Langston Hughes says that laughing in the face of fate is the only blue sky of the chronically dispossessed, that the pawn shop is a magnet for those of us dressed to kill ourselves or all pressed up with a mandate to go. Hughes seems to want to argue against the lie of progress that the great migration narrated down home. Starting with "blues" and ending with "and blues" he marks a cycle characterized by economic desperation and heroic effort towards keeping the bare minimum, reproducing the same. And he shapes it through that other figure of diaspora mentioned in the title, trafficker in despair?, the ambigious "jew". What does it mean to narrate movement nothing, as a treadmill railing against emptiness, against absence, agains the period, final end where dispersing, reconsolidating, pressing, pressing, oppression becomes no longer a process but a verdict, over and done.
Together with Hughes, Hurston rails against the finality of verdict and the pretense of justice, making a "comedy of negro life" in which an all black town banishes one of their own. How to how to color the to name the place of banishment at the moment when all land is owned. Interestingly, in Mule Bone the banished man, Jim, has no family to mourn him, to claim him to defend him...except for the chosen family of ultimately fickle Methodist worshippers, and intensely fickle potential bride and the truer family of a best male friend, a partner in musicality. In this drama, which is mostly about witnessing, the right to witnessing the madness of making one narrative of waht happened one night at the general store in a diverse community of black christian folk. What does this banishment of ones own have to do with an older banishment from a diverse black(ened) community in Africa...if anything? The two men..who are never given mothers, who choose each other over a bride are the ultimate heroes of this comedy, emphatically choosing musical wandering over domestic "bliss", but ultimately they use this agreement to forge a coalition to enable them to get back into town. I guess my question is, what does community mean when lack of attachment becomes a requirement for membership?
Black Marxism (look how uncharacteristically chronological i am being!) recuperates some sort of memory some sort of membership, some sort of African something when Cedric Robinson insists that black radicalism (and the continuities within it worldwide) are not simply a result of shared reaction to colonialism and capitalism, but have a "foundation" thast is some sort of true African something that must survive the infinite dispersals of colonialism and neocolonialism. Robinson refuses the thesis that black radicalism is simply negation and wants to insist on a positive something of African peoples, but what is it exactly. If as he insists (and as he uses Rodney to assert) the African was facing the situation imposed (and is now still facing) by Europeans "as an African and as man" what has happened (to me)? Is this some sort of displacement of absence...if the mistake is to cite Europe as the source of everything and to deny an African source, what does Robinson have to do in order make this work? Aside from passing "true" black radicalism through DuBois to C.L.R. James to Richard Wright (all of whom make this same sacrifice of a gendered diversity in their articulations of black manhood) he also argues for some sort of procreativity that cannot tolerate the trauma and sexual violence (thus that the African is not...undiluted across time and space) that would disrupt the linearity coherence of the memory project he wants to argue for. Who has to stay gone from this? What would be that original (non-militaristic, migratory) true thing that we are remembering when we are being radical. What if it is only that we love each other enough to imagine move in some way that doesn't accept the inevitability of war?
The unelaborated transmission of African past to black radical present that Robinson wants colludes interestingly with the nation to family move that Patton reveals in her examination of the invention of "African AIDS" as a heterosexual pattern of HIV spread made oppositional to the "white" homosexual spread of the disease, in order to contain western economic culpability and fear of family fluidity. Patton suggests that Western medical thinkers would rather trace AIDS to some monkey, into the exotic and strange (though heterosexual) sex practices of African people to queers (and how?) and somehow to people of color within the west (with similarly dirty practices of heterosexuality) while completely skipping over the somehow sacred bodies of white people who think they are white and straight people who want to convince straight people that they are straight. Anyway, according to Patton this leads to some sort of remapping of Africa as an again source of pathological darkness, with a key that agrues that there are no blank spots, no exeptions to lack of human life sustainability in Patton's reading the map tells us to go ahead and assume that the place where they haven't diasgnosed HIV or AIDS are just places of secret or inevitable AIDS. This allows, Patton says, the reader to forget the gaps in the first world (say the impoverished communities of color that break the myth of the west, say the sex that happens across communities, say the irreponsible donation of poorly screened blood in large quantities TO Africa. Paul Farmer would would Robinson, the first world cannot see itself as a source of disease. So if the AIDS in Africa discourse (not to discount the real problems of the epidemic) is used to renarrate Africa as Hegel narrated it, as outside of world history, as a an empty places with resources to be taken, as a place without life, how useful is this absence in sustaining narratves of state viability in the global north. (like for example the difference between 'weak state debts' and the somehow excusable ridiculous national deficit of the United States).
Spivak wants to directly challenge this idea of the political moving from the individual through family into society and ending up as nation by bringing up Devi's emphasis on the tribal bond slavery that complicates the possibility and implications of democracy and nation formation in India. Is there really such thing as a diverse enough, a universal enough nation that can sustain the infinite diversity of people who have not been recognized as human, on whom economies that cannot sustain the equality of a contract have been levelled through the same concept of depts that will welcome these third world nations into nationness? Or, as Spivak suggests, is there always an elsewhere, a place that the narrative cannot include the abject and is that elsewhere woman (who becomes a resource, who becomes land in the narrative of the nation as in the narrative before).
This resonates with Angela Davis's argument about the use of convict labor and the narrative of black criminality to sustain the neccessary absence of black people from the politcal life of what is meant by labor. The ability of the so-called democratic nation to sustain disenfranchisement is mind-numbing. And here we are. Back in prison. That place of routine sexual assault, of lies hierarchies, that place that we've been all along, where our bodies don't matter because they can't. Where our bodies have to be disciplined into a story that excludes us. Where we have to accept our help build some terrible box that can never sustain us, never honor us, never name us and never stop me from holding you.

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