This project turns away from a positivistic discourse of black enfranchisement in order to attend to expressions of blackness as a condition of ontological death — that is, as an irreconcilable encounter between blacks and humanity. It explores representations of black (il)legibility and (non)being in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, conditional black will in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, and the reinscription of slavery in abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s 1857 “Personal Liberty Bill.”
Because of its focus on the antagonistic structural relation between blackness and being, the project draws from theorizations of afro-pessimism, including the work of Christina Sharpe, Calvin L. Warren, and Saidiya V. Hartman. Broadly defined, afro-pessimism is an interpretive lens that accounts for antiblack regimes of violence that are endemic to civil society and that make humanity legible by rendering the distinction between humans and blackness impossible to settle. Thus, afro-pessimism pushes back against the metaphysical assumption that all sentient beings are human beings. As Warren writes in critique of the declaration, “Black Lives Matter:” “the human being provides an anchor for the declaration, and since the being of the human is invaluable, then black life must also matter, if the black is a human (the declaration anchors mattering in the human’s Being)… One must take a step back and ask the fundamental question: is the black, in fact, a human being?” (author’s emphasis, Warren 2).
While afro-pessimism has been criticized for its negative rhetoric vis-à-vis more positive critical modes (e.g. those that advocate the pursuit of universal and/or constitutional principles of “liberty,” “equality,” and “justice”), the project is motivated less by an impulse to “correct” or delimit the optimism of liberal humanism and more by a desire to perform a work of understanding which may or may not yield solutions to the problems that afro-pessimism raises. In part then, the project contemplates the possibilities of what Sharpe terms “wake work.” For Sharpe, wake work requires “stay[ing] in the wake to sound an ordinary note of care. I name it an ordinary note because it takes as weather the contemporary conditions of black life and death” (Sharpe 132). Accordingly, rather than attempt to reconstitute blackness for the category of “Human,” the project is concerned with the ways that black persons live in and despite the everyday regimes of violence that target black life.
Exhibit I – Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014)
Caroline Wozniaki’s imitation of Serena Williams’s body gestures to the formless nothingness that afro-pessimistic thought describes as a condition of black (non)being.
Two of the main themes that the semi-autobiographical poems in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric explore are the hostile space that mediates blackness, humanity, and citizenship, and “the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of color” (Rankine 24). The various manifestations of this hostility and its concomitant anger are articulated by the book’s seven sections, which include microaggressions, the commodified performativity of blackness and black anger, the intractability of racism, and the nature of racist language. These overwhelming and enervating forces threaten to render blackness inhuman and invisible.
Rankine demonstrates that the irreconcilability of blackness and visibility/humanity is a learned condition that is reinforced by the educational system. Citizen begins by transposing the reader into an increasingly effaced black persona (“You”). The persona reflects on her relationship with a white girl who asks to “copy what you have written” in class: “You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person” (5). The “assumption” that the white girl is “thanking you” gestures to the ways in which blacks are conditioned to tolerate and justify thinly veiled racism, even as schoolchildren. Such justifications are performed on the part of whites as well; the white girl plasters “almost” whiteness over the black girl’s identity — ascribes a barely legible, incomplete humanity to her exploited classmate — in order to make herself “feel better” for cheating. The black persona’s effacement is completed by the teacher, who “never figures out your arrangement perhaps because you never turn around to copy Mary Catherine’s answers. Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there” (6). The scene evinces the complex process through which antiblack racism is either ignored and enabled (e.g. the teacher), enacted in order to exploit (e.g. the white classmate), or justified in order to diminish the hurt of being exploited (e.g. the black persona).
Rankine’s poems thematize Christina Sharpe’s concern with strategies for living in the face of a “total climate” of anti-blackness. Sharpe likens anti-blackness to the weather (“wake”) and the structure of the slave ship: “[it] is the totality of our environment… while the air of freedom might linger around the ship, it does not reach into the hold, or attend the bodies in the hold” (Sharpe 104). Because of the inaccessibility of air for those who live in the wake, “wake work” necessitates aspiration: “the withdrawal of fluid from the body and the taking in of foreign matter (usually fluid) into the lungs from the respiratory current, and as audible breath that accompanies or comprises a speech sound” (author’s emphasis, 109).
Remarking on Serena Williams’s career-long confrontation with prejudice on the tennis court, Rankine analogizes the wake that Williams struggles against to a “daily diminishment… a low flame, a constant drip” (Rankine 32) — a slow death. Rankine reads Williams’s exasperated “no, no, no” to Mariana Alves, the umpire who made five bad calls against Williams at the 2004 US Open, “as if by negating the moment she could propel us back into a legible world” (27). The futile exhalation of Williams’s “no, no, no” threatens to evacuate itself of meaning, to enter a state of formlessness. In spite of this threat, Rankine asserts that Serena aspirates in the wake: “Serena is not running out of breath. Despite all her understanding, she continues to serve up aces while smashing rackets and fraying hems” (33). But living in the wake is ultimately a test of endurance, as Williams’s perseverance on the court is overshadowed by scandalized media reports of “Serena… Crip-Walking all over the most lily-white place in the world” and of Caroline Wozniacki, a former number-one player, stuffing towels into her shirt and shorts: “Wozniacki… finally gives the people what they have wanted all along by embodying Serena’s attributes while leaving Serena’s ‘angry nigger exterior’ behind” (36). Wozniacki’s mimicry of Williams’s body exemplifies Calvin L. Warren’s assertion that if “black” is an index of formlessness — that is, a something that is also a nothing — then “black
being helps the human being re-member its relation to Being through its lack of relationality” (Warren 32). Williams’s existential struggle for visibility displays the metaphysical problem of blackness as nothingness, where to be recognized as human is to be recognized as white.
Exhibit II – Jordan Peele, Get Out (2017)
Two scenes from Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) — Chris’s descent into “The Sunken Place” and Chris’s confrontation with Georgina — visualize what afro-pessimists theorize as the black experience of permanent falling and asphyxiation, respectively.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out acknowledges and engages with a contemporary climate of anti-blackness. The film is occupied not only with fulfilling (and subverting) the expectations of the horror genre, but also with representing the “quotidian struggles against dehumanization” that Claudia Rankine poeticizes in Citizen. Significantly, the suspense and anxiety that Get Out evokes arguably stems less from its fantastical elements and more from its metaphorical address of what Calvin L. Warren advances as the everyday conditions of “black
The premise of Get Out revolves around the cooptation of black minds and bodies in order to extend the lifespan of aging whites, a conceit that recalls Rankine’s discussion of Caroline Wozniacki’s mimicry of Serena Williams. The transfer of white consciousness into an evacuated black vessel is initiated by hypnosis, wherein black consciousness is stored away in a void-like space called the “Sunken Place.” The film depicts the hypnotic process when the black protagonist, Chris, is confronted by Missy, the mother of Chris’s white girlfriend. Missy probes Chris about his childhood, including the death of his mother by car accident. Missy asks Chris why he didn’t call anyone when his mother never arrived home from work, and Chris responds: “I just thought that if I did it would make it real.” What does Chris not want to make “real?” Does he refer to his mother’s accident? To his mother herself? If Chris refers to his mother’s accident, how could he have consciously chosen not “to make it real” prior to learning about the accident? If Chris refers to his mother, what does this suggest about the relation between blackness and Being? These questions iterate Warren’s observation that the question “‘How is it going with Being?’ is a way of inquiring about the status of Being after it has been thoroughly dismantled — what is left?” (Warren 31).
The scene of Chris’s hypnosis interweaves multiple strands that characterize the condition of blackness as ontological death. Chris eventually becomes paralyzed by Missy’s hypnotic interrogation; she commands Chris to “sink” a slow descent into visual and (in)audible nothingness. Chris’s descent into the Sunken Place mirrors visually what Warren describes as “metaphysical holocaust” — “the systematic concealment, descent, and withholding of blackness through technologies of terror, violence, and abjection. To exist, as black, is to inhabit a world through permanent falling” (emphasis added, 13). The black objects (as opposed to subjects) of Missy’s hypnotic interrogation are cast off into a state of perpetual sinking that is never actualized — that is, a state of non-being. As Warren elaborates, “[blacks] inhabit the world in concealment and non-movement (this is the condition of objects, despite the work of object-oriented ontologists who project humanism onto objects).” In the Sunken Place, Chris floats in suspended animation; he yells mutedly at Missy through a condensed field of vision. Aspiration — one of the features of wake work that Christina Sharpe posits as a strategy for enduring a total climate of anti-blackness — is impossible, and Chris hyperventilates as he awakens from the Sunken Place.
The impossibility of aspiration is indicated in a later scene when Georgina, a black housemaid, appears to struggle against her hypnosis and the white consciousness piloting her body. When Chris explains that “when there are too many white people, I get nervous,” the typically even-tempered Georgiana experiences a tumult of emotions. She cries, appears to gasp for breath, and then struggles to regain her composure as she whispers “no” in different, eerily ambiguous inflections. Who is the speaker of Georgina’s words? Is it Georgina herself? Is it her white intermediary? The scene, which mirrors the formless repetition of Williams’s “no, no, no” on the tennis court, literalizes a double consciousness in which blackness is sealed off in a vacuum of nothingness and every breath is a struggle to reclaim mind and body from white ontological terror. As Georgina pleads “no” and the camera captures her range of facial expressions, Rankine’s poetry resonates: “Words work as release — well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture. A pulse in a neck, the shiftiness of the hands, an unconscious blink, the conversations you have with your eyes translate everything and nothing… words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything the body remains” (Rankine 69).
Exhibit III – Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (1861)
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “The Slave Ship” brings together several of the themes that underwrite this project — black (il)legibility, black (non)being as permanent sinking, a total climate of anti-blackness — and which all gesture to the ontological death that Harriet Jacobs imparts as the non-choice of slavery. The painting portrays jettisoned (or, perhaps, self-immolating) slaves drowning and being eaten alive as a storm approaches. Coincidentally, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric concludes with “The Slave Ship.”
Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself exposes the non-choice of black
being that is inherent to slavery and, paired with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, suggests the historical continuities between slavery and the contemporary moment. By collocating these artistic works, this project reiterates Saidiya V. Hartman’s question of whether or not “the momentousness of emancipation as an event ultimately efface[s] the continuities between slavery and freedom and the dispossession inseparable from becoming a ‘propertied person’?” (Hartman 13).
The problem that Jacobs expresses, and that Rankine and Peele rearticulate, is the paradoxical denial of black will, whether as a condition of slavery, a climate of anti-blackness, or both. When Linda seeks refuge from Dr. Flint in her grandmother’s garret (Linda’s “Loophole of Retreat”), she explains that “It seemed horrible to sit or lie in a cramped position day after day, without one gleam of light. Yet I would have chosen this, rather than my lot as a slave, though white people considered it an easy one” (emphasis added, Jacobs 147). What is notable about Jacobs’s phrasing is the use of the conditional form (“would have”) to describe the choice that she apparently made. Why doesn’t Jacobs write in the past indicative — “I chose this, rather than my lot as a slave?” Does she mean to hedge around her legal status as property, her “incapacity” to express her will through choice? Does this make her more comprehensible, legible, or sympathetic to white readers within a cultural logic that reads blackness strictly in commodified form?
While Jacobs’s authorial decision to write in the conditional form bespeaks her will, the suggestion that this choice is compelled by necessity makes Jacobs’s will itself conditional. To be sure, the conditional nature of enslaved persons’ will is explicated by John Locke when he writes that “Freedom from Absolute, Arbitrary Power, is so necessary… that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his Preservation and Life together… Indeed having, by his fault, forfeited his own life, by some Act that deserves Death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may… delay to take it, and make use of him to his own Service, and he does him no injury by it” (Locke 302). In Locke’s formulation, Linda (an enslaved woman) is forced to give up her freedom and, by extension, her life; she is ontologically dead and recognized only as property. Her flight from Dr. Flint figures as an expression of her will, but one that is, according to the arbitrary nature of slave laws, an “Act that deserves Death.” By expressing her will, Linda paradoxically authorizes her own enslavement and death. As Marissa J. Fuentes notes, enslaved lives were predicated on “The fundamental condition of social death and commodification… The consequence of this construction resulted in the perception of the enslaved as always criminally culpable” (Fuentes 109). In this regard, the experience that Jacobs communicates is akin to the visualization of “permanent falling” in Peele’s Get Out or Rankine’s commentary on state-sanctioned surveillance of black bodies in Citizen: “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description” (Rankine 105).
In its rawest expression, the non-choice of slavery and black
being is a non-choice between life and death. Jacobs draws attention to this non-choice when she declares that “liberty is more valuable than life” and “Death is better than slavery” (Jacobs 55, 86). What the events in Incidents reveal is that death and slavery are synonymous. When Jacobs relates an anecdote about a wet nurse who drowns herself in a river to “escape the degradation and torture” of being whipped for a “trifling offence” to her mistress, an earlier declaration by Linda and her family accrues newfound significance as it fills the curious absence of Linda’s insight into the wet nurse’s suicide: “He that is willing to be a slave, let him be a slave” (emphasis added, 155, 32).
Exhibit IV – Gerrit Smith, “Personal Liberty Bill, March 1859”
A comparison of Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence (left) with Gerrit Smith’s “Personal Liberty Bill” (right) demonstrates the conditions of illegibility that characterize blackness, according to afro-pessimism. The erasure of explicit references to the practice of slavery in the American colonies from Jefferson’s Declaration is exploited by Smith in support of his claim that the United States Constitution authorizes the wholesale abolition of slavery. In fact, however, the violence of slavery inheres in these founding documents.
The abolitionist and politician Gerrit Smith’s “Personal Liberty Bill,” which derives from his June 17, 1857 speech in Milwaukee, showcases how nineteenth century reform discourses — in this case, the invocation of the United States’ founding documents to advocate human equality — actually reproduce the logics of domination that they seek to challenge. Smith’s deployment of the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence to vindicate the Constitution of claims by pro-slavery advocates that it sanctions institutional slavery actually reinscribes pro-slavery arguments into the Constitution. Thus, Smith’s leveraging of the Declaration predicates Saidiya V. Hartman’s contention that the “recognition of the humanity of the slave did not redress the abuses of the institution nor the wanton use of the captive warranted by his or her status as chattel, since… the acknowledgement of the slave as subject was a complement to the arrangements of chattel property rather than its remedy” (Hartman 6).
Smith’s speech is introduced by an enumeration of the three most “important duties of the New York Legislature:” to “shut up the dramshops,” to extend suffrage to non-whites, and to “protect all innocent persons within the limits of the state — especially the weary and heart-broken fugitive slave” (Smith 1). Protection for fugitive slaves (curiously listed last) underscores the entire impetus of the bill, which is to counter the “delusion that the Federal Constitution is proslavery” and to assert that it is “full of power to abolish every part of American slavery.” Smith argues, among other things, that if the Constitution were “a law for Slavery… it is void;” that there is a “lack of mutuality and consideration” in the supposed “bargain” between whites and blacks that makes “one the slaves of the other;” that there is no evidence that the founding fathers “saw Slavery in the Constitution” (which Smith tempers by admitting, “unless there is evidence”) (1). This last assertion prefaces Smith’s lamenting that the “Constitution, with all its Proslavery interpretations, is blindly worshipped, and the great and heavenly principles of the Declaration of Independence are ridiculed” (4). In Smith’s view, the Declaration should be taken as “supplemental” to the Constitution because the Declaration’s principle that “all men are created equal” is the “very soul of the Declaration of Independence and being therefore the very soul of the Constitution, it instantly annihilates all possible Proslavery interpretations of that instrument.”
The issue with Smith’s citation of the Declaration of Independence as the “soul” of the Constitution is that the Declaration belies what is at least a marked ambivalence about slavery. A comparison of the original draft of the Declaration with the final version reveals the extent to which the question of the humaneness of slavery is eluded or obscured and the legibility of slaves is abridged. In litigating the various offenses committed by the “present King of Great Britain” against the American colonists, a paragraph excised from the final version of the Declaration explains that “he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distinct people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere… determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce” (qtd. In Wills 382). Why remove this section of the original draft? Were the writers sensitive to the uncomfortable contradiction of declaring the equality of all “men” and lambasting Britain for enabling the slave trade while concurrently participating in and benefiting from slavery? Were the writers concerned that such a contradiction undermined the integrity of their complaints about a “tyranny over a people fostered & fixed in principles of freedom” (also removed from the original draft)?
Ironically, Smith’s argument against reading the Constitution as pro-slavery echoes the contradictions that the writers of the Declaration were compelled to remove. “That is not government which does not promise protection in return for allegiance,” Smith writes, “That is not government, but a naked despotism” (Smith 1). But in fact, the original draft of the Declaration imputes the exchange of protection for allegiance — or, in Smith’s formulation, “Federal Government” — to the King of Britain: “he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them” (qtd. in Wills 382) Thus, reading Smith’s logic against the original draft of the Declaration makes the “despotism” of Great Britain appear more aligned with the principles of liberty and equality than the antebellum United States. Moreover, reading the Declaration as a historical document produced by slaveholders invested in blacks as property encourages a consciousness of the way that, as Marissa J. Fuentes points out, “violence is transferred from the enslaved bodies to the documents that count, condemn, assess, and evoke them,” even when, or perhaps because, enslaved bodies are erased from those documents (Fuentes 5).
The exhibits in this project are intended to address different features of blackness as it is understood from the perspective of afro-pessimism. The scenes drawn from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric figure blackness as a condition of illegibility and disembodiment — a student whose blackness renders her invisible unless recast as “almost” whiteness and whose exploitation therefore goes unremarked; a minstrel-esque performance of blackness that only manages to advert attention to the fungibility of the black body because the performer is white. In Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the Sunken Place and the muted or breathless expressions of black characters in physical and mental arrest allegorize an experience of blackness as (non)being — a metaphysical holocaust that produces the sensation of permanent descent. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself exposes the non-choice of slavery — a non-choice between life and death — as symptomatic of an arbitrarily conditional enslaved will. Lastly, Gerrit Smith’s 1857 “Personal Liberty Bill” reflects the limitations of reform discourse and the possible risk of reinscribing the violence of slavery through the invocation of documents that are invested in maintaining the illegibility and propertied status of slaves.
As aforementioned, the project is driven less by an interest in countering the optimism of liberal humanistic inquiry, which places a premium on terms like “agency,” “humanity,” “individuality,” and “freedom,” and more by a need to understand the historical continuities between slavery and freedom. At the same time, the project attempts to practice a sensitivity towards what Saidiya V. Hartman describes as the “precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator” (Hartman 4). A conscious effort was made to veer away (where possible) from explicit scenes of routinized and instrumentalized violence, opting for more subtle, though no less poignant and incisive, representations of blackness as ontological death. An exception is Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “The Slave Ship” in Exhibit III; the artwork was selected because it pictorializes the fatal non-choice of slavery expressed by Jacobs’s Incidents. Nonetheless, the intended result is a sense of blackness that isn’t relegated solely to the realm of physical violence, but that accounts for the everyday conditions that oppress black life.
Fuentes, Marissa J. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016
Get Out. Dir. Jordan Peele. Los Angeles: Blumhouse Productions, 2017.
Hartman, Saidyia V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.
Smith, Garrit. “Personal Liberty Bill, March 1859.” The American Slavery Collection. Accessed 24 May 2019.
Warren, Calvin L. Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018.
Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage Books, 2018.